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Europe's Food Regions Fight to Keep Their Good Names

Trade: From Parma, Italy, to Roquefort, France, specialty manufacturers are in a cultural and economic fight with the U.S. over product identity.


PARMA, Italy — For Andrea Bonati, producing Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is more than a profession.

"When I was a kid, I used to steal it from where my mother kept it," he says of the cheese better known around the world as Parmesan. "It's an addiction. It starts running in your blood. It's something that deeply affects the feelings of the people who make it. Once you start, you can't stop."

But there are two kinds of "Parmesan" in this world.

One is Bonati's beloved Parmigiano-Reggiano, a hard, dry, fragrant cheese made to exacting specifications by a consortium of Parma-area producers that he heads. To the makers and most Italians, this is the only real Parmesan, served grated or in elegant slivers.

Then, in their disparaging view, there's that cheap generic stuff made from other cheeses that comes in cardboard containers and is sprinkled like so much salt on spaghetti.

Now Bonati, his consortium and European officials have placed the word "Parmesan" squarely at the center of an escalating slugfest between European and U.S. manufacturers over the traditional names of specialty foods.

The European position is that the right to make a product called "Parmesan" should belong exclusively to the Parma consortium and that producers of other local foods should have similar rights.

Paolo Galloni makes Parma ham, a dry-cured raw ham, less salty than most prosciutto, that is famed for its delicate flavor.

Like many producers of regional specialties, Galloni argues that specific natural conditions at the food's place of origin are an essential ingredient to its quality. "The speed of the breeze flowing from the hill is perfect for slow and sweet curing of the ham," he said, pointing to the open windows of the curing room.

The food fight is both cultural and economic.

For the Europeans, this is a battle to defend traditional culture against an onslaught of soulless industrialization and globalization.

Without the economic advantage that comes from exclusive rights to the regional food's name, advocates of these protections argue, small local producers lose their ability to compete, and as they disappear they carry old traditions with them into oblivion.

U.S. manufacturers, however, see all this as an ill-disguised effort to overturn trademarks, wipe out rights to produce various kinds of generic foods, and boost the profits of European producers at the expense of foreign competitors.

A recent legal victory by Bonati's group means that U.S. and other producers who don't belong to the 650-member Parma consortium can no longer sell "Parmesan" cheese in the European Union, although they are still free to sell their shake-onto-the-pasta product under another name.

A Growing List

The European Union enforces rights to the names of about 600 regional foods, ranging from famous products such as Italy's Parma ham and France's Roquefort cheese to such lesser-known items as 10 distinct varieties of Greek table olives.

The list is constantly growing. This month, for example, the Roman artichoke, or "carciofi romaneschi," was added. "Now people will be sure that when they ask for a Roman artichoke, that's what they will get," said a satisfied Antonio De Amicis, director of the Coldiretti Farmers' Union.

EU negotiators are now trying to extend such protections globally through the World Trade Organization, and possibly expand them into other areas.

If they were to completely succeed, no U.S. manufacturer would be able to use the names of the 600 products, including the cheeses Parmesan, Grana Padano, Roquefort, provolone, Romano, Asiago, Gorgonzola, Fontina or dozens of lesser-known names. Nor could they call their products Parma ham or balsamic vinegar.

"If you want to know what you're eating, you have to know the place of production. It's part of the richness of Italian culture," said Mirella Galloni, one of the second-generation owners of a family-run firm producing Parma ham in the hilly countryside near the city.

Her cousin Paolo said that for producers elsewhere to market "Parma ham" constitutes an attack on both the identity and the livelihood of people from the region.

"Food is part of the cultural identity of a people," he said. "If you're in a global world, your personal identity has to be defended."

Galloni factory literature explains to consumers that the way to savor the ham is to "concentrate, sniff a slice ... and then allow it to melt in your mouth. Enjoy the taste achieved through artisan skills. Wait 20 seconds and discover that no aftertaste remains."

One should also appreciate the ham's "intense, rosy color, brilliant and fast even after slicing," it adds. "Thus we visually recognize a gourmet masterpiece."

Because the ham is lightly salted, the salt must be spread by hand in precisely the correct manner, Paolo Galloni said. Then the ham must be cured at exactly the right temperature. If it is too cold, it won't absorb enough salt, while if too warm, it may spoil.

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