The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to fray America’s love affair with authentic Italian foods.
Current travel restrictions have made it virtually impossible to savor the tastes of Italian foods and wines at their source. Many Italian restaurants in the U.S.—both upscale and casual—that typically serve these products have shuttered their doors or been forced to limit seating capacities.
Even home cooks have encountered problems procuring coveted ingredients. In April, reports emerged of a pasta shortage fueled by increased demand as consumers ramped up their pandemic pantries.
The Italy-America Chamber of Commerce West (IACCW) is a consortium of individuals and companies whose goal is to promote bilateral trade between Italy and the U.S., including foods and wines The non-profit organization, part of a network of 81 Chambers operating in 55 countries, sponsors networking and educational events to support industry professionals, entrepreneurs and the public.
Forbes.com spoke to Genny Nevoso, the Executive Director of IACCW, to find out how the pandemic is affecting the Italian food and wine industry, and its ripple effect on American consumers.
How has Italy garnered its reputation as an epicenter of food tourism?
Genny Nevoso: I had the good fortune of being born in Italy. Although a tiny country, Italy is a small geographic miracle, the only peninsula in the world spreading north through south at a perfect latitude, and surrounded by seas, which contribute to the incredible microclimates and biodiversity.
Food tourism has become popular because the country’s unique cultural and culinary history are woven into one, an enduring appeal for visitors. The diversity of geographic regions offers different food products and recipes on fertile lands that grow more than a thousand different grape varieties—each with their own personalities and stories to tell.
When someone travels to Italy to explore a specific region, they can expect to see how these foods are harvested and the products are made. They can better understand the land, soil and animals, and witness the hundreds of thousands of years of protocol, history and traditions.
For instance, Calabria’s best-known wine is a DOC wine called Cirò, which was once offered as a toast to the gods by the Olympic champions of ancient Greece. It’s still being produced today, and you can connect to that kind of history in every authentic bottle you find. Calabria, as well as other southern regions like Puglia, Sardinia, and Sicily have become increasingly popular destinations for food and wine lovers.
With travel restricted, how can food tourists bring a little bit of Italy into their homes during the pandemic?
GN: While Americans can’t travel to Italy at this moment, distance often makes the heart grow fonder. They can still savor the tastes of authentic Italian products at home, available from many specialty food purveyors and at restaurants closer to home.
Each of these products carry a bit of the land, history and tradition with them. Think Modena’s Balsamic vinegar, Campania’s Mozzarella di Bufala and San Marzano tomatoes, products that tell the story of a destination and an entire landscape.
How has the burden of recently imposed U.S. tariffs affected Italian food imports and costs?
GN: The tariffs slapped on by the U.S. administration last fall hit many beloved Italian products with an additional 25% which came into force in October 2019 and are still in effect. They have already affected Italian specialties such as Parmigiano Reggiano PDO, Grana Padano PDO, Gorgonzola PDO, Asiago PDO, Fontina PDO, and Provolone Valpadana PDO but also salami, mortadella, crustaceans, citrus, shellfish, juices and liqueurs.
Fortunately, Italy was mostly spared on the latest round of tariffs announced in August 2020)—no additional duties will be applied to its pastas, wines, and olive oils.
Many of our Chamber members, both restaurateurs and importers, have urged the administration to remove the tariffs, adding that these products are irreplaceable by domestic ones. And that is the truth. To deliver authentic Italian cuisine, fine-dining or casual, there is a crucial need for specific products, particularly those we call PDO (of protected denomination of origin) for foods and DOC/DOCG for wines.
Also, the impact of these tariffs makes it impossible for small producers to survive and make a living. We are running out of qualified manufacturers in Italy because the younger generation is walking away from time-honoured family businesses due to these challenges, the lack of demand for the product and general lack of interest. Those that inherit the companies are not incentivized to carry them on, and this is resulting in a serious shortage.
For instance, the best and most expensive Modena balsamic takes 25 years to age. Families produce a barrel as soon as they have a baby because their future and wealth depend on it. We will see regional and honest vinegar disappear if we don’t change now. We cannot allow counterfeit or imitation products to continue to find their way into the market to replace the true, PDO and DOC products in this way. The more demand we can sustain, the more value the new generation sees in the business, and they will be encouraged to modernize their family’s brands. Otherwise, these products will be near extinction, and soon.
What has been the effect of pandemic-related restaurant closures, reduced seating capacities and drastic drops in tourism on the availability of Italian food products in the U.S.?
GN: Restaurants play a major role in importing and serving Italian food and beverage products, as well as in educating consumers. With the multiple threats to the industry of higher tariffs, greater shipping costs, growing numbers of restaurant closures, and pandemic guidelines limiting restaurant capacity, it is becoming increasingly more complicated to experience Italian food authenticity.
Imitation products, those we call “Italian sounding” products, run rampant. The widespread imitation of Italian products is tremendously severe: Italian sounding products account for 100 billion Euro vs 42 billion Euro, which is the value of authentic Italian food production.
Over the past decade, the number of imitation products has grown by 70% and has Italian producers extremely worried. Italy boasts the highest number of products (794) protected by EU food labels, which guarantees their authenticity. Labeling something as “Italian” has become a byword for quality, making it more profitable for “Italian sounding” producers to make money from the strength of the “Made in Italy” label.
Many American-based chefs advocate for true Italian ingredients on their plates, taking pride in the far-flung ingredients they research and source. And then, quite frankly, there are others in the industry who just don’t get it. They are trapped in cost concerns that cause them to serve inauthentic versions that they portray as Italian-style and give them a platform. This has the adverse effect of mutating consumers’ experiences of authentic Italian fare.
By the way, how are restaurants in Italy faring? Will they be there when we return?
GN: A recent decree by the Italian government invokes a wide range of urgent measures to support and revive the country’s economy. Approved in August 2020, it provides several million Euros of direct support to aid the recovery of the restaurant industry. Specifically, restaurants and catering companies that recorded an income drop of 25% between March and June 2020 (compared to the same period last year) are entitled to Euro 2,500 to purchase ingredients (food and wine products) that must be made in Italy. This initiative is aimed at helping both restaurants, and food and wine producers recover.
How can Americans best identify and find authentic Italian products to bring in their kitchens now?
GN: Italy is the country with the highest number of PDO (Protected Denomination of Origin) and PGI products (Protected Geographical Indication) products recognized by the European Union, totaling 573, which include 167 food products and 406 wines. These can be recognized by the round, sun-like red and yellow symbol.
Our IGP products currently total 249 (131 food products and 118 wines). They can be recognized by the blue and yellow symbol.
The EU Geographical Indications system helps producers and the local economies. It prioritizes environmental protection thus safeguarding the ecosystems and biodiversity of that specific land. It also supports social integration within the community. Lastly, these certifications offer consumers a higher level of traceability and quality standards.
Through the True Italian Taste campaign – funded by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and coordinated by Assocamerestero – IACCW has been producing events and educational activities aimed to help media, buyers, and consumers recognize authentic Italian food & beverage products.
A few tips: always look for the PDO or PGI symbols; make sure the package states it is a “Product of Italy.” Don’t be fooled by the Italian sounding brand names and the Italian flag symbols on packages.
Note: This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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