When a sound is worth €60 billion: Italian sounding and counterfeit Italian food

The ingredients are rigorously Italian. You looked the original recipe up on the Internet and followed it step by step. Finally, you taste it and… the disappointment deflagrates unexpected and scorching: The spaghetti dinner you were longing for is not even close to the ones you had in Italy.

If you are American or Canadian, and you bought pasta, olive oil, parmesan cheese and tomato sauce in a regular supermarket, chances are your dinner is not Italian. The ingredients may sound Italian, even look Italian, but they are probably as American or Canadian as you are.

It is the “Italian sounding” phenomenon: products with Italian names, whose packages feature the booth-shaped country’s flag, but that are made somewhere else. Besides frustrating foodies worldwide, they damage the nation’s food industry, Italians claim.

“There are two big problems,” said Andrea Olivero, Italy’s deputy minister of agriculture. “We are cheating the consumers, and there is a loss of revenue for the Italian producers.”

According to the Italian farmers’ association Coldiretti, two out of three “Italian” products sold outside Italy have nothing to do with the Mediterranean country. The business of counterfeit Italian food generates about €7 million every hour, more than €60 billion, roughly £45 billion, per year. This is twice the export of the same original products. It costs Italy about 300,000 jobs, Coldiretti estimates.

Unlike other industries, such as fashion and technology, counterfeit delicacies are mostly produced in rich countries, where affluent customers are willing to pay more for high-end products. The U.S. and Canada, where imitations outweigh the genuine Made in Italy 10 to one, absorb nearly 50 percent of the global market.

Cheeses, like mozzarella and Parmigiano Reggiano, are the most imitated, followed by cured meat, olive oil, sauces and vinegar. According to Coldiretti, which estimates that 99 percent of the “Italian” cheese sold in the U.S. is not genuine, in 2014 the U.S. produced more imitation Italian cheese than American cheese. The 2,200 million kilograms of imitations dwarfed the about 30 million kilos of cheese imported from Italy.

Real Italian products, like cheese or cured meat, have to conform to a strict set of rules, are thoroughly inspected and every ingredient has to be traceable. Italian farmers, backed by the government, want to valorise the quality this process ensures. That is why they demand that international trade agreements, like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), impose transparent labels, clearly stating where the products, and each ingredient, come from.

“The TTIP is essential to protect genuine Italian product from counterfeiting,” said Roberto Moncalvo, president of Coldiretti.

Safeguards for regionally protected products are one of the most debated issues between European and American representatives negotiating the TTIP.

“We’re not condemning the people who want to imitate us,” said Oliviero. “We like competition. We just need to make sure people understand what is local and what is coming from Italy.”