How Trump’s tariffs are threatening Italy’s Parmesan cheese makers

Cheese makers plan to protest at US military bases around Italy if Donald Trump imposes crippling sanctions that would cost the Italian food industry billions.

How Trump's tariffs are threatening Italy's Parmesan cheese makers
Photos: AFP

Donald Trump’s tariffs war continues to send shockwaves through EU economies, Italy’s food industry being the latest chip on the negotiating table. 

The economic consequences of the ongoing commercial feud between the US and the EU – initially caused by a disagreement over EU subsidies given to Airbus – have become alarmingly clearer to Italian food producers.

Italian wines, citrus fruits and fruit juices would all be badly hit, amounting to a total of $5 to $10 billion in losses according to Italian food consortiums.

Italy’s internationally renowned Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano cheeses (both strong-tasting, hard Parmesan cheeses) will be one of the most affected industries.

In 2018, 10,000 tonnes of Parmesan cheese were exported overseas. With the US’s punitive taxes, already approved by the World Trade Organization, cheese industry leaders estimate consumption in the US will drop by 80 to 90 percent.

That's largely because tariffs of up to 100 percent on the value of food products exported to the US could be slapped on as early as next October.

Industry leaders expect a total of 400,000 wheels of Parmesan cheese, which weigh on average 38kg (84lb) each, will not be sold to the US as a result.

“We’re ready to protest in front of the numerous American military bases in Italy in Montichiari, Ghedi, Longare and Vicenza to protest the WTO’s decision,” Stefano Berni, general manager of the Grana Padano Consortium, said in a statement.

“The Italian cheese crisis would be followed closely by an emergency situation in other Italian agri-food sectors such as wine, citrus fruits, grapes and jams,” Lorenzo Bazzana, manager of Italy’s National Farmers’ Confederation Coldiretti, told online daily Linkiesta.

Bazzana believes the Airbus-Boeing feud is an excuse to hide the real reason for the tariffs: the US food industry’s forgery of Italian food products and its intent to flood the market with them without competition.

In the case of Parmesan, often referred to in Italy as the 'King of Cheeses', the global fake agro-food industry sold 200,000 tonnes of the stuff outside of the EU in 2018, 15 times more than the authentic Italian produce with the “protected designation of origin” label.

“What with US tariffs and Brexit, we must do everything possible to avoid a perfect storm that'll damage the entire Italian agri-food industry,” Massimiliano Giansanti, president of agricultural confederation Confagricoltura, is quoted as saying in business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore.

“At this point we must ask our government to urgently intervene.”

The US and EU's complicated trade spat

For more than 14 years, Washington and Brussels have accused each other of unfairly subsidising Boeing and Airbus, respectively, in a tit-for-tat dispute.

The WTO ruled in March 2012 that billions of dollars of subsidies to Boeing were illegal and notified the United States to end them.

The EU was also reprimanded by the WTO more recently, leading US President Donald Trump's administration (who have made punitive tariffs something of a signature move) to ask the trade body what the maximum amount of tariffs they could impose on the EU was. 

The EU and the US have been working to set in motion a limited trade pact as part of a truce agreed in July when Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker pledged no new tariffs following those imposed on steel and aluminum.

Member comments

  1. “”We’re ready to protest in front of the numerous American military bases in Italy in Montichiari, Ghedi, Longare and Vicenza to protest the WTO’s decision,” Stefano Berni, general manager of the Grana Padano Consortium, said in a statement.”

    The WTO is a neutral organisation. Stefano needs to protest outside the EU at its unfair tactics and tariffs on trade. Airbus is subsidised because no doubt somebody at the EU has had their pocket lined. They’ll sacrifice the little people in their own interests.

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OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

Michelin-starred food has its merits but it doesn't fit with the Italian tradition of cuisine, argues Silvia Marchetti and some frustrated Italian chefs. There's nothing better than a plate of steaming lasagne, she says.

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

I’ve never been a great fan of sophisticated dishes, twisted recipes and extravagant concoctions that leave you wondering what is it you’re actually eating. T-bone steak with melted dark chocolate as topping, burrata cheese with apples, spaghetti with blueberry sauce aren’t my thing.

Hence, I never eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, and it’s not because of the exorbitant bill – paying €200 for a salad simply because it was grown in the private garden of a chef which he personally sprinkles with mountain water each morning, is a bit over the top.

I just don’t think such fancy food has anything to do with the real Italian tradition.

The ‘nouvelle cuisine’, as the name suggests, was invented in France by chef Paul Bocuse. And it’s ‘nouvelle’ – new – not anchored to past traditions.

The philosophy of serving small morsels of chic food on humongous plates as if they were works of art is the exact opposite of what Italian culinary tradition is all about.

We love to indulge in platefuls of pasta or gnocchi (and often go for a second round), and there are normally three courses (first, second, side dish, dessert and/or coffee), never a 9 or 12-course menu as served at Michelin establishments (unless, perhaps, it’s a wedding).

Too many bites of too many foods messes with flavours and numbs palates, and at the end of a long meal during which you’ve tasted so many creative twists you can hardly remember one, I always leave still feeling hungry and unsatisfied. 

So back home, I often prepare myself a dishful of spaghetti because Michelin pasta servings often consist in just one fork portion artistically curled and laid on the dish. In fact, in my view Michelin starred cuisine feeds more the eye than the stomach.

The way plates are composed, with so much attention to detail, colour, and their visual impact, seems as if they’re made to show-off how great a chef is, than as succulent meals to devour. I used to look at my dish flabbergasted, trying to make out what those de-constructed ingredients were and are now meant to be, and then perplexed,

I look at the chef, and feel as if I’m talking to an eclectic painter who has created a ‘masterpiece’ with my dinner. I’m not saying Michelin starred food is not good, there are some great chefs in Italy who have heightened a revisited Italian cuisine to the Olympus of food, but I just don’t like it nor understand it.

There’s nothing greater than seeing a plate of steaming lasagne being brought to the table and knowing beforehand that my taste buds will also recognise it as such, and enjoy it, rather than finding out it’s actually a sweet pudding instead.

More than once, after a 4-hour Michelin meal with a 20-minute presentation of each dish by the chef, the elaborate food tasted has given me a few digestion problems which lasted all night long.

Michelin-starred food has started to raise eyebrows in Italy among traditional chefs, and is now the focus of a controversy on whether it embodies the authentic Italian culinary experience. 

A Milanese born and bred, Cesare Battisti is the owner of restaurant Ratanà, considered the ‘temple’ of the real risotto alla Milanese.

He has launched a crusade to defend traditional Milanese recipes from what he deems the extravagance and “contamination” of Michelin-starred cuisine. “Michelin-starred experiments are mere culinary pornography. Those chefs see their own ego reflected in their dishes. Their cooking is a narcissistic, snob act meant to confuse, intimidate and disorientate eaters”. 

Arrigo Cipriani, food expert and owner of historical trattoria Harry’s Bar in Venice, says Michelin-starred cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition, the one served inside the many trattorias and historical osterias scattered across the boot where old recipes, and cooking techniques, survive.

“Tasting menus are made so that clients are forced to eat what the chef wants, and reflect the narcissistic nature of such chefs. Italian Michelin-starred cuisine is just a bad copy cat of the French one”, says Cipriani.

I believe we should leave French-style cuisine to the French, who are great at this, and stick to how our grannies cook and have taught us to prepare simple, abundant dishes. At least, you’ll never feel hungry after dinner.