14 July 2011


SARONNO, Italy – When wedges of Parmesansan cheese, made in Lithuania, Parmazano Fiorentino, made in Britain, and Parmeano made in Germany were discovered recently, the Italian food police (NAS) went into action. It was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. At stake is Italy’s reputation for high quality, great tasting food products, and unless  you want to start World War III, it’s probably not a good idea to mess with Italian mothers or Italian food.

The Real Deal
To make matters worse, ham, olive oil and even basil carrying false credentials saying they are genuine Italian products have been found in supermarkets and deli counters in Italy and abroad. We can only imagine how many hams, disguised as Parma or San Daniele, or bowls of pasta dressed with pesto made from basil from who knows where have already disappeared into the stomachs of unsuspecting consumers. It’s a jungle of gastronomical rip-offs out there. 

At the Proscuitto Fair
Last year the NAS food piracy unit seized some 1,000 hams that had been falsely labeled DOP by unscrupulous ham fakers.  The Food Police suspect that some of the hams were sent to deboning plants outside of Italy where they were branded with the coveted DOP prosciutto trademark, the five-point crown, and then shipped back to be sold to unsuspecting consumers.

For most of us prosciutto is prosciutto, they all look the same, but not for the Food Police. How can they  tell if the five-point crown branded on the side of the ham is the real deal or not? The same way the American government can tell if a $20 bill is real or counterfeit: by periodically inserting the tiniest, almost imperceptible flaw into the design of the trademark and then distributing the updated branding machine to prosciutto makers. It’s those pre-established flaws the Food Police look for as they go about their daily inspections. 

To verify falsified olive oil a different, and very old technique is used. A technique that has been used by olive oil producers for hundreds of years to determine the quality of their freshly pressed oil -  they smell it and they taste it.  Much like wine tasters, who have been trained to identify the individual notes within a wine, members of the NAS food piracy unit are now being trained as olive oil tasters. 
Olive Oil Tasters at Work
By the flavors they smell and taste, they can tell if an oil is 100% pure olive oil or not, and which region in Italy it came from. If sunflower oil or soybean oil has been added to an oil which is then bottled and labeled as extra-virgin Italain olive oil, they know it.  Recently 25,000 liters of suspect oil were recently seized, most of it on its way to the United States and Germany. 

That sting operation pointed up the importance of labeling olive oil to show its source. Where olive oil comes from is important, not only for the oil producers but for consumers as well, and members of the national farm association Coldiretti were very happy when Italy finally won the long battle with the European Union to make sourcing labels obligatory on bottles of olive oil. 
Liquid Gold
Sourcing labels are important. Consumers are not trained olive oil tasters so they have to put their faith in the information they find on labels, and that information has to be correct. Otherwise they end up paying top dollar for olive oil labeled as Italian but actually pressed from olives grown in Spain, Greece and Tunisa.   And yes Dorothy, there is a difference.  

Italy is Europe’s second largest producer of olive oil behind Spain, but unlike other Spain, Italian olive oil has won 38 certificates of quality, the highest number in the European Union. Now that’s something to brag about. Granted the labels can also be a bit confusing, but you can uncover the DOP, DOC, IGP etc. mysteries in Auntie Pasta PDO, DOP, et al posted 04 February 2010, and for more info on Italian olive oil see Auntie Pasta: Oil Change, 30 September, 2010. 

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