An ambitious Italian gourmet food promotion programme could transform the fortunes of a revitalised sector - as long as EU bureaucracy doesn't ruin everything.
The consortia for two leading Italian speciality foods, Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano, plan to target US consumers with a €4 million budget over three years.
The European Commission has appropriated €2 million for the joint effort, and the remainder will be funded by contributions from the consortia and the Italian government. The gourmet food industry, which has enjoyed growing interest in recent years, believes that the campaign is vital in achieving new market access.
"The EU funding allows us to make our product more competitive in the US by raising consumer awareness about the qualities that differentiate Prosciutto di Parma from other hams," said Stefano Tedeschi, president of the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma.
"At the same time we will be educating people about the PDO system that helps assure the high quality of our product and many other European foods."
In order to qualify for the coveted Protected Designation of Origin certification, products must meet rigorous standards related to naturalness, aging, authenticity and traceability.
However, there are some concerns that such EC-supported programmes designed to promote EU food products outside the bloc could be hampered by sheer bureaucracy. Horacio Gonzalez for example, director of international relations at FIAB, the Spanish Food and Drink Federation, told FoodNavigator.com recently that crippling bureaucracy means that a good idea is in danger of losing momentum.
"We are not so happy with the Commission," he said. "The problem is red tape. We need to spend 20 per cent of our time with the civil servants and 80 per cent of our time with out companies to make this work. But it's the other way round.
"This makes no sense at all. There needs to be more flexibility. We are working with our French, Italian and Portuguese counterparts (Anea, Federalimentari and FIPA respectively) which means dealing with four different ministries and then the Commission - it's a heavy burden."
Europe's food and drink sector has been in danger of losing its competitiveness for some time. The Confederation of Food and Drink Industries in the EU (CIAA) has voiced the opinion in recent months that the industry needs more help from the European Commission if it is to face the increasing competition from Asia, South America and the US.
But despite various criticisms of the EU, the Italian gourmet industry remains hopeful that the initiative will impact positively on the sector.
"Actions such as these will help bring clarity to consumers in the American market," said Andrea Bonati, president of the Consorzio del Parmigiano-Reggiano. "Only by spreading the culture of PDO can the right climate be created for recognizing the authenticity of regional products such as ours."
The EU food and drink industry sector is the largest manufacturing sector in the 25-member bloc, with a turnover value of around €800bn in 2003 and employs four million people. The sector purchases and processes 70 per cent of the EU's agricultural production. Exports of food and drink products add up to €45bn a year.