Food producers in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy are worried that cheap imitations of their famous Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Prosciutto di Parma ham from other parts of the world could ruin the reputation of their refined products.
The original Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made from raw cow's milk according to an 800-year-old tradition. It can take two years for the cheese to age and get ready for consumption. Parmigiano is the Italian adjective derived from Parma, the city, and Reggiano stands for the region of Emilia. The cheese is known internationally as parmesan.
"Parmigiano-Reggiano comes from here and can only be made in this way and in this region, and the process all starts with milk produced by cows reared on local vegetation," said Igino Morini, spokesman for the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium.
European law classifies the original name, as well as the translation parmesan, as a protected indication of geographic origin.
"The European Court of Justice has declared that the Parmesan appellation, like all other similar appellations, can only be used for genuine parmesan," Morini said. "And for us it's very important. It represents a historic judicial decision that says that all false appellations within the EU are forbidden."
But in many other countries, including the United States, Canada and Brazil, the name parmesan is often used for similar cheeses that are produced in a cheaper and faster way. Since the 2012 earthquake that hit the Emilia region, more of these cheeses have been produced overseas than in Italy, and they have reached Italian markets.
Parma ham producers also complain.
"Our ham is a product that also has some problems related to fakes," said Carlo Leporati, marketing director for the Parma Ham Consortium. "But the biggest problem, mostly abroad but also in Italy, is the misuse of the 'Parma ham' appellation. ... The use of these names suggests that the products come from Italy and from the Parma area."
The European Union is working to widen marketing protection for foods from specific regions, such as Italy's Parma ham, France's Roquefort cheese, Portugal's Madeira wine and many others. The debate on the scope of these geographical indications has pitted the 28-nation bloc against the United States, Australia, Argentina and others in global trade talks.
The argument that "parmesan" is a common noun, rather than an indication of origin, has been dismissed by the European courts. But for Parma food producers and exporters, this is not enough.