Wait! Is That Really Parmesan Cheese You're Eating?

Italy Preps $25 Million U.S. Campaign To Combat Food Impostors

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The government of Italy is preparing to spend millions of dollars in hopes of convincing Americans that when it comes to food, "just because it looks Italian, doesn't mean it's Italian."

A three-year campaign touting Italian-made pastas, cheeses, olive oils and more will include TV commercials, digital video, PR and retail activations, said Italian Trade Agency officials this week during a U.S. food industry trade show. The goal is to get more Italian products in stores while convincing shoppers that foods made in Italy are of higher quality than those that have Italian-sounding names but are made elsewhere.

Italian food makers face a challenge in this country because the U.S. government does not abide by European Union food labeling regulations that protect geographic designations of origin. That allows an American-made brand to label a cheese as Parmesan, for instance, even though it is not made in the regions of Italy near the cities of Parma and Reggio Emilia. In Italy, so-called Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made using a complex and time-consuming method.

The new campaign will initially target New York, California, Texas and Illinois and will be backed by a media budget of nearly $25 million in the first year, according to the Italian Trade Agency. Agency officials previewed the campaign this week at the Food Marketing Institute's annual trade show in Chicago. FMI represents U.S. food retailers accounting for some 40,000 stores. The Italian Trade Agency secured a sponsorship for the trade show that deemed Italy as the "host country" for the event, called FMI Connect. The agency took advantage by covering 900 square meters of the trade show floor with foods from 52 Italian companies.

Italian officials are in the final stages of picking an ad agency for the campaign, according to a person familiar with the matter. TV ads are slated to run in October as well as in the first quarter of 2016, according to an Italian Trade Agency document. Assets will include a new logo that includes the colors of the Italian flag with the phrase "The Extraordinary Italian Taste."

A campaign already airing in Canada includes a video (above) that mocks ads from food brands that try to position themselves as Italian, but aren't made in Italy. A campaign website states the case for authentic Italian foods by claiming, among other things, that "Italian-sounding" brands amount to "unfair competition, as prices for imitation products are often lower than authentic products because they don't respect strict production protocols and standards."

In the U.S., the Italian Trade Agency is seeking retail partnerships for point-of-sale ads, sampling and couponing to support foods made in Italy. According to a survey conducted by the agency in the four targeted states, the biggest reason U.S. shoppers don't buy foods made in Italy is because they are harder to find than "Italian-sounding" products.

The dominant pasta brand in the U.S. by market share is Barilla, according to Euromonitor International. While Barilla's corporate offices are in Italy, most of the pasta Barilla sells in the U.S. is made in Ames, Iowa.

On its website, Barilla justifies the U.S. production by saying that "the machines used in our Ames plant are the same as used in our plant in Parma, Italy" and the "recipe and the wheat blend are the same as that used in Parma, Italy." The wheat used comes from "around the world, ending up with the best wheat available," the brand states.

In an effort that is separate from the made-in-Italy consumer campaign, Italian officials are lobbying for new trade rules between the U.S. and European Union that would give Italian-made products more geographic labeling protections. The topic is part of the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership pact that has been under negotiation since 2013.

Italian officials favor regulations that would, for instance, mandate that asiago cheese made in the U.S. would be labeled with a qualifier, like "asiago-like" cheese or "asiago-type" cheese, Carlo Calenda, Italy's vice minister for economic development, said in an interview.

U.S. industry groups are generally opposed to such proposals. The U.S. Dairy Export Council is "not against the idea of GIs [geographical indications], but is strongly against … efforts to overreach and extend such protections to cheeses that are clearly generic terms used around the world for decades," according to a statement on the group's website.

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