Consumers and the Italian-sounding conundrum, is it all a big con?

By Silvia Ellena and Jacob Thorburn

Italian food has a special appeal that can attract customers across the world, and here in Groningen, things are no different. Advertisers often capitalise on this allure, tempting customers in with Italian flags, phrases or pictures to create the image of authenticity and these very techniques help to create ‘Italian-sounding’ products.

But to what extent are these products truly Italian exports? The Scoop’s reporters Silvia Ellena and Jacob Thorburn spent a week investigating the nature of this sprawling phenomenon and the origin of Italian-sounding products here in the city.

Local perspectives

Market Guy
Camine, pictured above (L), has spent many weekends peddling his goods across Groningen, hoping to attract new customers such as Daniele (R). © The Scoop, 2018.

Carmine Buono is 36 years old and has spent the last eight years selling genuine imported Italian foods at his stall ‘Le Delizie’ in Vismarkt in the centre of Groningen. After ten years in the army, he arrived in the Netherlands without a job, but with big plans for the future.

He admits that a life of selling authentic Italian goods started as a necessity that was born out of his passion for food.

“The first thing Italians can do when they go abroad is work with food, it’s a passion” Carmine says with a smile. He details his journey from Avola in Sicily, and his early struggles to find a logistical connection between the shores of Sicily and the north of the Netherlands.

“I was spending more than 35 or 40% on import costs before I built a good relationship with suppliers.” He points to a stack of Cacciatore salami. “You have to add 3 to 4€ for each kilogram you import. It all quickly adds up.”

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Carmine admits that his prices will never be able to rival those of Albert Heijn, Lidl or Aldi, the supermarket giants who dominate food sales in Groningen. A frown quickly forms on his face as he discusses the current market’s “impossible” climate.

“They [supermarkets] will always attract the customers who are looking more at the price than the quality. It’s irrelevant that my produce is 5 to 600% better quality, minimum!”

Attached are the voices of two Italian students who are committed to using the legitimate products of their home country.

Meilien Quaranta is the owner of Ariola on Folkingestraat, Groningen, was born in the Netherlands, but made in Italy. She shared a similar path to Carmine, and only returned to her home country once her husband convinced her of the idea of running their own Italian delicatessen. Ariola has since become a popular spot for Italian food lovers over the twenty four years the Quaranta family has spent here.

However, Meilien is able to see the other, more positive side of the story. She claims that counterfeit Italian-sounding products have not seriously threatened her business, pointing towards her unique items such as Limoncello, Torroncini, Amaretti and Cotechino that she claims can’t be found anywhere else in the city.

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Despite both Carmine and Meilien’s prices being higher than average, they regularly serve a loyal group of repeat customers. Daniele Giuliani, a local Groningen resident, is one of them. He stops by Le Delizie every week to buy “quality and authentic goods” and catch up with it’s eccentric owner.

Although the popularity of imitated Italian goods frustrates him, Carmine refuses to blame the consumer. He argues that this “ignorance” can only be combated by the government and a commitment to improving our knowledge on what we choose to eat. Before we conclude our interview, Carmine leaves us with some friendly advice. “Make sure you come back! It’s important to know what’s in your food.”

 

The legality of the issue, and the marketing response

The legality of falsely advertised Italian products affects multiple countries across the world, and because these definitions of legality differs by nation, enforcing stricter regulations internationally becomes a challenge.

Italian-sounding products can cost the Italian economy up to 60bn euros according to Federalimentare, the official organisation that represents and protects domestic food producers.

European Union laws protect against misleading commercial practices which set precedents for member states to follow. These range from ensuring the labeling of the origin of protected foodstuffs, to protecting the consumer from “misleading commercial practices.”

National courts diverge in their application of EU legislation, and these laws are individually tested according to what an ‘average consumer’ is reasonably expected to know before buying a product. For example, a high threshold would mean that the average consumer regularly checks the back of his/her products for place of origin.

According to the EUR-LEX website, the official online archive of public EU laws, there have only been six cases affected by the precedent set in the misleading advertising section in Article 6 of the 2005 directive.

From our subconscious side, the use of Italian flags, pictures and language all evoke the image of Italy, which in turn creates “an expectation of quality” according to Dr. Jing Wang professor of consumer behaviour at the University of Groningen (RUG).

She does admit although the use of Italian flags, pictures and language all subconsciously create “an expectation of quality,” marketing experts will claim the use of visuals is more permissible than textual (or conscious) references to Italy.

“These products are meant to be used in ways that will replicate the Italian food experience. They’re not claiming to be of authentic origin, rather it’s a category of products that we subconsciously associate with Italy.”

Dr. Lorenzo Squntani, professor in European Consumer Law at the RUG, confesses that the ambiguity in this case is damaging for consumers. “It’s become a paradox. It [the average consumer test] was originally designed to protect consumers from counterfeit products.” The reality now is that the threshold of an average consumer is that they are regularly checking the back of their products. But they don’t.

 

The reaction from Italy

The AGCM, the Italian Competition Authority, has recently successfully intervened in three cases concerning misleading advertising. “The Authority managed to make the labels more transparent on the origin of the products” said Luisa Cordova, spokesperson for the AGCM.

One successful case involved Citres, a company claiming to produce authentic Italian products, who had to delete captions such as ‘A Product of Italy’ and images of the Italian flag on their capers and dried tomatoes.

NGOs also form part of the resistance. Confagricoltura, the General Confederation of Italian Agriculture, represents Italian agriculture enterprises and constantly works to guarantee that non-Italian products do not exploit Italy through marketing practices.

Estimated Percentage Share of Profits for Counterfeit or Italian Sounding goods sold abroad in billions of euros: [2014]

EU AsiaOceania South America North/Central America Total

Counterfeit:

1.1 1.4 3.4 1.1 7
Italian Sounding:

23.3

5.4 27.4 5.5

61.6

Total:

24.4 6.8 30.8 6.6 68.6

Source: Table 9 – Confagricoltura Centre of Studies, p.5

In 2015, Confagricoltura together with the Italian and German Chambers of Commerce founded the Italian-Sounding e.V. operating in Germany. According to Gaetano Menna, spokesperson for Confagricoltura, the Italian German association is a unique initiative to tackle the false advertising of Italian-sounding products.

“The flexibility of German laws allowed us to do this experiment” he said, adding that Germany is the biggest importer of Italian products in Europe. The investigative activity of the association has brought positive results, such as the banning of pasta produced in Egypt that was promoted as Italian.

However, the experiment is not likely to be repeated in other countries, where there is no legal ground for the Chambers of Commerce to proactively report Italian sounding products.

 

The responses of the companies involved

In addition to the suffering consumer, Italian producers who are dedicated to delivering 100% authentic, home-grown products also struggle against this trend.

Di Martino is a producer that has specialised in the production of pasta in Italy’s Campania region since 1912. To this day, more than 90% of their sales are exported according to spokeswoman Valentina Santonastaso, who adds that the company is well aware of the Italian-sounding phenomenon.

Even though she claims her company’s values and brand of pasta cannot be replicated, she admits that this problem has existed for years now.

Regions across Italy continue to be affected by this trend. In 2013, the tiny comune of Parrano in the Umbria region attempted to repel a Dutch cheese producer of the same name, and claimed the company unethically branded their cheese with a “stolen” name. At the time of publishing, Parrano cheese can still be bought in Albert Heijn.

The above video shows the experience of Parrano and their attempt to fight back in 2013. Source: Youtube

Santonastaso suggests that the solution to this problem requires “a shared responsibility. On one side the companies have to be more transparent. But equally, the consumer also needs to be careful.”

It is this honesty-first ethos that has driven companies such as Di Martino to work closely with consortia who report false advertising, in order to root out those who try to exploit the popularity of Italian-sounding commodities.

The Scoop also tried to contact four companies complicit in the problem, Grozette, Parrano, Albert Heijn and Aldi. Only Grozette returned our calls.

GrozetteGrozette is a Dutch cheese producer based near Woerden that has been in operation since 1963. Their products can be found in Albert Heijn and the specific product we enquired about, the Italian-style parmesan flakes, can be bought for €2.12.

Annechien Elsinga, who is employed by the company, revealed that Grozette will be undertaking a relaunch of their Italian-style flakes in late 2018.

When asked why she said that because the company’s audience had changed, and the packaging started to look dated. Although it wasn’t a “core reason,” she did admit that their feelings of a lack of transparency to their consumers also influenced their decision to re-brand the flakes.

 

What’s the solution? 

So what can a consumer feeling powerless do?

Dr. Squintani says it’s time for consumers to wise up and stop buying pretender products if it affects them. Dr. Wang agrees with this sentiment and says consumers need to take extra care to look beyond the packaging and assess other attributes of products to decide if they will suit them.

Downloadable apps such as ReliabItaly and ItForItaly have been created to help consumers both quickly and accurately identify the origin of ‘Italian’ products. Santonastaso from Di Martino urges customers to use these apps to scan barcodes and ensure the authenticity of the products they buy.

Daniele Giuliani, the regular from Le Delizie, looks embarrassed as he confesses that because of time constraints, he isn’t as diligent when checking the origin of his food when shopping at a supermarket.

Alessandro and Emma, Italian residents living in Groningen, offer just two examples of the responsible behaviour that will be necessary to combat this trend. Their efforts to buy only those products that are 100% Italian is the first step in helping the most vulnerable producers.

This is the only way to protect the ‘little man in Sicily’, which is what Carmine preaches is most important in this global predicament.

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