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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OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

Michelin-starred food has its merits but it doesn't fit with the Italian tradition of cuisine, argues Silvia Marchetti and some frustrated Italian chefs. There's nothing better than a plate of steaming lasagne, she says.

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

I’ve never been a great fan of sophisticated dishes, twisted recipes and extravagant concoctions that leave you wondering what is it you’re actually eating. T-bone steak with melted dark chocolate as topping, burrata cheese with apples, spaghetti with blueberry sauce aren’t my thing.

Hence, I never eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, and it’s not because of the exorbitant bill – paying €200 for a salad simply because it was grown in the private garden of a chef which he personally sprinkles with mountain water each morning, is a bit over the top.

I just don’t think such fancy food has anything to do with the real Italian tradition.

The ‘nouvelle cuisine’, as the name suggests, was invented in France by chef Paul Bocuse. And it’s ‘nouvelle’ – new – not anchored to past traditions.

The philosophy of serving small morsels of chic food on humongous plates as if they were works of art is the exact opposite of what Italian culinary tradition is all about.

We love to indulge in platefuls of pasta or gnocchi (and often go for a second round), and there are normally three courses (first, second, side dish, dessert and/or coffee), never a 9 or 12-course menu as served at Michelin establishments (unless, perhaps, it’s a wedding).

Too many bites of too many foods messes with flavours and numbs palates, and at the end of a long meal during which you’ve tasted so many creative twists you can hardly remember one, I always leave still feeling hungry and unsatisfied. 

So back home, I often prepare myself a dishful of spaghetti because Michelin pasta servings often consist in just one fork portion artistically curled and laid on the dish. In fact, in my view Michelin starred cuisine feeds more the eye than the stomach.

The way plates are composed, with so much attention to detail, colour, and their visual impact, seems as if they’re made to show-off how great a chef is, than as succulent meals to devour. I used to look at my dish flabbergasted, trying to make out what those de-constructed ingredients were and are now meant to be, and then perplexed,

I look at the chef, and feel as if I’m talking to an eclectic painter who has created a ‘masterpiece’ with my dinner. I’m not saying Michelin starred food is not good, there are some great chefs in Italy who have heightened a revisited Italian cuisine to the Olympus of food, but I just don’t like it nor understand it.

There’s nothing greater than seeing a plate of steaming lasagne being brought to the table and knowing beforehand that my taste buds will also recognise it as such, and enjoy it, rather than finding out it’s actually a sweet pudding instead.

More than once, after a 4-hour Michelin meal with a 20-minute presentation of each dish by the chef, the elaborate food tasted has given me a few digestion problems which lasted all night long.

Michelin-starred food has started to raise eyebrows in Italy among traditional chefs, and is now the focus of a controversy on whether it embodies the authentic Italian culinary experience. 

A Milanese born and bred, Cesare Battisti is the owner of restaurant Ratanà, considered the ‘temple’ of the real risotto alla Milanese.

He has launched a crusade to defend traditional Milanese recipes from what he deems the extravagance and “contamination” of Michelin-starred cuisine. “Michelin-starred experiments are mere culinary pornography. Those chefs see their own ego reflected in their dishes. Their cooking is a narcissistic, snob act meant to confuse, intimidate and disorientate eaters”. 

Arrigo Cipriani, food expert and owner of historical trattoria Harry’s Bar in Venice, says Michelin-starred cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition, the one served inside the many trattorias and historical osterias scattered across the boot where old recipes, and cooking techniques, survive.

“Tasting menus are made so that clients are forced to eat what the chef wants, and reflect the narcissistic nature of such chefs. Italian Michelin-starred cuisine is just a bad copy cat of the French one”, says Cipriani.

I believe we should leave French-style cuisine to the French, who are great at this, and stick to how our grannies cook and have taught us to prepare simple, abundant dishes. At least, you’ll never feel hungry after dinner.