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How the grate parmesan scam costs Italy millions

Online sales of rip-off parmesan cheese alone cost Italy €60 million last year, an employee at the Ministry of Food, Forestry and Agricuture told The Local.

How the grate parmesan scam costs Italy millions
Online sales of counterfeit parmesan cheese alone cost Italy €60 million last year. Photo: Shutterstock

There were 370 cases of fake parmesan sold online over the last 12 months, although Vincenzo Carrozzino, who works to combat fraud at the ministry, said Italian food fraud was so widespread it was difficult to estimate the real size of the problem.

The figures were revealed during a forum about Italian produce at Milan's Expo on Monday.

Over the years there have been some shocking examples of food fraud, but online agropiracy is a relatively new problem that is difficult to fight.

The ministry is now working alongside online marketplaces, including Ebay and Alibaba, to ensure counterfeit versions of Italian produce protected by EU food quality labels, such as DoP, IGP and STG, are not being sold on their platforms.

“It's already a difficult problem offline, but online is harder to combat,” said Carrozzino.

“Sellers can work through nicknames and as soon as we signal the fraud and block it, they are back up on a different server under a different name.”

Italy has the highest number of products (794) protected by EU food labels, which seek to guarantee their authenticity.

The production of these foods, including Italian wines, balsamic vinegar and cured meats, involves 300,000 businesses and is worth an estimated €13.5 billion a year, so the need to protect them is paramount.

In many ways Italian food is a victim of its own success. In today's global food culture, “Italian” has become a byword for quality. The downside to this it that there are plenty of retailers looking to make a quick buck from the strength of the 'Made in Italy' brand.

Dodgy names

Food fraud takes many forms, but one of the biggest problems facing Italian producers is the problem of Italian-sounding names.

How about some fine Romano cheese, some delicious 100 percent Italian-standard pasta, and a nice bottle of Rosecco to wash it all down with? It almost sounds tempting. Almost.

“Italian sounding names break EU rules on unfair competition because they give the consumer a false impression of the product”, Carrozzino added.

“But sometimes it's enough just to put the Italian flag on the box.”

Names, flags, Italian words. These are all good ways to dupe consumers into thinking they have bought the real thing, when in reality they are buying a product that has no connection to Italy, aside from its dubious name.

But how can shoppers be sure that they are buying quality?

“Consumers do have a responsibility to read the label carefully. Nowadays, there is so much information on labels and consumers really should read them properly,” said Carrozzino.

So be careful out there. Now, who's for some Rosecco? Anyone?  

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DISCOVER ITALY

Why some of Italy’s food festivals are ‘fake’ – and how to pick the best ones

Italy's countless sagre, or food fairs, are an autumn highlight. But how do you find the best events - and avoid the more commercial ones? Reporter Silvia Marchetti explains.

Why some of Italy’s food festivals are 'fake' - and how to pick the best ones

Italy’s renowned food fairs are one of the most exciting events during autumn and winter, particularly the coldest months when we’re looking for culinary weekend distractions. 

For the uninitiated, sagre are key gourmand exhibitions mixing local food, premium products, cheeses and olive oil – all the ‘excellences’ of the area – but lately I find some are just, well, fake. 

READ ALSO: The best Italian food festivals to visit in October

Instead of selling traditional indigenous delicacies, vendors sell a little bit of everything which they think appeals to foreigners and city people desperate for a rural break. 

Last weekend I went to the sagra at Osteria Nuova, near Passo Corese in Lazio, and found mozzarella from Naples and limoncello from Amalfi: now what do those have to do with the Rieti countryside?

It was sad and disappointing. Even though it takes place in an area which is famous at this time of the year for exquisite porcini mushrooms and chestnuts there was not even one single vendor selling these. Instead, there was codfish from Venice and porchetta from the Castelli Romani.

Up until a few years ago the Osteria Nuova food fair was very genuine and appealing: it was actually a real farmers’ market where animals were sold: not just rabbits and hens but cows, horses and donkeys. It was a vibrant event. 

Now the cages that once kept the animals are empty. And people just go there to stuff themselves with huge sandwiches and hotdogs. It’s always hell finding a parking spot because the fair is very close to Rome, luring day trippers on a ‘scampagnata’.

Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

My advice is to avoid visiting food fairs which are too close to big cities and towns, but pick offbeat villages or unknown rural spots where the sagre are small and with local producers selling authentic, ‘indigenous’ products. Choosing the remote hillsides, where traditions tend to survive, is of course better than the touristy areas. 

READ ALSO: Seven reasons autumn is the best time to visit Italy

Also, it’s best if the food fair is not too heavily sponsored or advertised in national newspapers. The best thing to do is search online for all food fairs in the area you plan to visit during the weekend or even during the week, and ask friends and locals as word of mouth can often be more reliable. 

Among the authentic sagre I would recommend the porcini mushroom food fair in San Martino al Cimino in the pristine hills of the Tuscia countryside in Lazio, where the woods are dotted with porcini. 

At the fair not only bags of huge porcini are sold but you can also buy a lunch ticket and taste various mushroom dishes sitting down at wooden tables. Last time I was served a delicious potato and porcini soup which inspired me to replicate (successfully) the recipe at home. 

However, the best thing is to search for the weird and unknown – food fairs with funny names and showcasing products that sound and look really bizarre. So forget about the usual truffles, mozzarella, limoncello, ham and pasta-filled events. I suggest opting for quirky food festivals in never-heard-of-before villages where the culinary adventure comes with a cultural jolt. 

Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

When I hear about something amazingly off-the-wall and tasty, with a particular story or legend behind it, my curiosity and taste buds tingle.

Last weekend I was surfing the web and came across the Ciammellocco festival in the tiny hamlet of Cretone, Lazio, which immediately aroused my curiosity. 

READ ALSO: 14 reasons why Lazio should be your next Italian holiday destination

As I had never heard of it before, I jumped in the car the following day and ventured out to an isolated woody area with a few small dwellings, where one single bakery makes this huge, funny-sounding, highly-nutritious sweet-salty doughnut with fennel seeds which has been around since at least the middle ages. Housewives used to make it for their husbands as a substitute for lunch when they went off working in the fields. 

Even though I have tasted similar ciambelle in my life none come close to ciammellocco, crunchy and tender at the same time, made with eggs but light.

Next I heard about the Sagra della Papera in Carassai, Marche region, offering succulent duck meat dishes with pappardelle pasta and roasted duck breasts, and given duck isn’t something you’d normally find in Italian restaurants, it makes the cut for authentic food events. 

Vegetarians can’t miss the Festival degli Orapi in the village of Picinisco north of Naples where guests are treated to platefuls of a unique, delicious spinach variety which is made exquisite by the fact that it grows beneath goat poo, a natural fertilizer. Locals actually roam the countryside with a knife to scrape away the poo and extract the orapi.

In Pedagaggi, Sicily, local housewives organize the Sagra della mostarda di fichi d’india, with gourmet dishes made from exotic-looking prickly pear mustards. 

READ ALSO: ‘La scampagnata’: What it is and how to do it the Italian way

Other curious sagre include the Festa del Gorgonzola set in the town of Gorgonzola in Lombardy which is the real birthplace of Italy’s iconic blue cheese. Huge pentoloni of steaming pots of gorgonzola in the middle of the piazza lure pungent cheese addicts. 

Also Diamante’s festival del peperoncino in Calabria is a must stop for lovers of strong, authentic hot dishes spiced up with chili peppers (there’s even a peperoncini eating marathon).

Real sagre tend to showcase one premium native product rather than a myriad with overlapping origins.

The more ‘local’ you dive into the deepest, remote corners of Italy full of tradition and folklore, the more genuine the sagra and the more satisfying the gastronomical experience.

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