1. Regulatory principles of Made in Italy
When it comes to food, Italy is commonly perceived as synonymous of quality and gusto. But how can consumers be sure that products that sound Italian such as pasta or salame or are genuinely Italian?
The “Made in Italy” declaration can be legitimately used for goods wholly obtained in Italy or that underwent their last substantial transformation (i.e. the process of making a final product have a composition and specific properties that it did not have before) in Italy, even though the single materials come from one or more different countries. The “Made in Italy” concept has been further strengthened by the introduction of the “100% Made in Italy” collective trademark that can be used for products and goods for which all the phases of design, projection, processing and packaging took place solely in Italy.
The inspiring principle lays, on the one hand, in the need to protect consumers who should be able to identify and choose the real “Made in Italy” and avoid deception with regard to the origin and the quality of a product and, on the other hand, in the opportunity to promote Italian manufacturers who maintain entire production process in Italy with the aim to enhance the identity, quality, value and style of their products.
2. The Pasta & Rice decrees
One of the main purposes of food regulation is the increase of transparency for consumer protection. Within this frame, the Italian Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies and the Ministry of Economic Development recently issued two interministerial decrees (Decree of 26 July 2017, in the Italian Official Journal of 8 August 2017, http://www.gazzettaufficiale.it/eli/gu/2017/08/17/191/sg/pdf, hereinafter the “Decrees”) which provide the obligation for pasta and rice manufacturers to compulsorily indicate all the places of the production chain from where the rice or the grain were cultivated to where the final product was packaged.
If such phases are carried out in different countries, the following wordings may be used depending on the provenance: EU Countries, Non-EU Countries, EU and Non-EU Countries. If at least 50% of the wheat has been cultivated in one country – Italy, for instance – it is possible to use the following wording: “Italy and other EU and/or Non-EU countries”. This new labelling system will be in force for two years on an experimental basis, following the rules already existent for milk and cheese.
While the new rules seem to benefit Italian consumers, pasta producers are less than pleased: talking about labels moves attention away from the real problem, namely that Italian wheat production is currently insufficient to satisfy the needs of the Italian pasta producers themselves. In addition, the distinctive quality of such products is not linked to the place of origin of the wheat but more likely rather to the place where each ingredient is mixed with the others.
The Decrees, however, might not resist the test of the European Union which shall rule on them within 6 months of their communication by the Italian ministries.
3. Italian sounding and the Italian Consumer Code
In most cases food labelling is a powerful means to either lure or to distance consumers. However, the power of the label cannot be misused by introducing elements which might interfere with the rights of consumers to be clearly informed about all those circumstances under which they can make an informed purchase. Furthermore, there is the interest of virtuous manufacturers and distributors for fair play of competition on the market.
Within the food and beverage sector, the so-called Italian sounding is a particularly valuable system by which foreign-made goods cash in on the fame and popularity of Italian food by using names which evoke Italy, (such as “bolognese"). It should also be said that misleading labelling is indeed an infringement of the Consumer Code. The Italian Competition Authority (the “ICA” or the “Authority”) is the body in charge of public enforcement of the Consumer Code. With respect to the issue at hand, the ICA is called on to assess the potential deception of consumers inferred by any means, including a label.
On 20 September 2017, the ICA ruled in two different cases (PS10864 - CITRES-ITALIAN SOUNDING PS PS10865 - CONSERVE BONETTO-ITALIAN SOUNDING,) related, indeed, to the Italian sounding of given food products. These are the most recent ICA cases of a long list concerning the same subject. However, in these two rulings the ICA went a little further by suggesting that labels of certain products which are indeed manufactured in Italy but utilize vegetables imported from North Africa were misleading. The product labels at issue contained the statement “Italian product" and product "Made in Italy”, with the Italian flag juxtaposed on a basket of artichokes in the first case and an image of dried tomatoes and capers in the second one. In the Authority’s view this would be deceptive for consumers in relation to the geographical origin of the products. In the first case, the proceeding was closed following the submission of certain commitments. In particular, the investigated undertaking committed to delete the (allegedly) ubiquitous statement "Italian product”, replacing it with the statement "Not of EU origin". In the second case, PS10865 - CONSERVE BONETTO-ITALIAN SOUNDING, the statement “produced and packaged in Italy” remained, but the investigated undertaking deleted the Italian flag which (allegedly) deceived consumers with regards to the origin of the primary ingredients.
Such an approach, even stricter than the one embraced by the Decrees on pasta and rice, represents a war declaration to the incorrect use of the Italian sounding, a phenomenon estimated to be worth more than 50 billion.