Is there a happy medium for small-scale artisanal producers and Big Food?

By Niamh Michail contact

- Last updated on GMT

© Terra Madre
© Terra Madre

Related tags: Food, Agriculture

Some of the world’s rarest heritage and artisan foods will go on display this month at the Terra Madre Salone des Gusto food show in Turin, Italy. FoodNavigator asked Slow Food’s secretary general, Paolo Di Croce, why it is so important to preserve them.

According to FAO data, 75% of the world’s diet comes from just 12 plants and five animal species, making the global food system highly vulnerable to environmental changes.

This also means that the human diet is based upon a few selected hybrid varieties, sold to farmers by a handful of multinationals, says Slow Food, an organisation which has made its mission to preserve food and agricultural biodiversity which is intrinsically linked to people's cultural identity.

According to Di Croce, Slow Food's main objectives are "to protect the small purveyors of fine food from the deluge of industrial standardisation and to ensure the survival of endangered animal breeds, cheeses, cold cuts, edible herbs - both spontaneous and cultivated - cereals and fruit.

It also wants to "make a stand against obsessive worrying about hygienic matters, which kills the specific character of many kinds of production and, finally, to protect the right to pleasure." 

©Cooperativa Norandino_panela

It goes about doing this in a number of ways, one of which is to register the food in Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, an online archive which catalogues information about endangered heritage and artisanal foods from across the world that are at risk from extinction. It currently has 3746 products and 1612 nominations.

The Presidia

The next step is Slow Food’s Presidia, a project which runs alongside the Ark of Taste, and directly supports over 13,000 small-scale food producers for around 450 different foods. This support ranges from training in how to improve harvests and production techniques, and even marketing with. a front-of-pack Presidia label that manufacturers can add to their products in Italy and Switzerland.

The latest additions to Slow Food’s Presidia from across the world will be showcased at the Terra Madre Salone del Gusto, which brings together over 800 exhibitors and 7,000 delegates including academics, farmers, fishermen, activists and chefs from 143 countries, as well as around 250,000 members of the public who can attend for free.

New Presidia include a variety of porcelain cacao cultivated on the slopes of  Colombia’s highest mountain, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, by 36 families of cacao growers.

Porcelain cacao © Slow Food

Another is tengkawang nut oil from Kalimantan in Indonesia, which has a butter-like texture at room temperature and is yellow, with a walnut aroma, that is used to flavour meat, or Waldstauden rye bread, made from a traditionally cultivated, perennial variety of rye around Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland.

It is characterised by its very dark colour, moist texture and a full rye flavour. Slow Food there is currently no budget for an adequate marketing campaign and that


most of the current processing is done by Meierhof.

Finding a happy medium

So can the ethics of Slow Food, the desire to protect small-scale producers and move away from monoculture co-exist with the multi-billion euro global food industry?

Di Croce is not so sure. “It is necessary to make a clear choice between two productive models. Monocultures, intensive farming, and large-scale retailing are designed exclusively to maximize profit. Instead multifunctional, multifaceted small-scale model is capable of maintaining quality and reproducing resources in the course of time, preserving biodiversity and ensuring environmental and economical sustainability,” ​he says.

"The modern industrial agrifood model is based on an idea of infinite growth, but our planet’s resources are finite. Harmonizing this awareness with world population numbers, predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050, is one of the most important challenges we face today. This is why we are asking for the food system’s decisive role to be taken into serious consideration and for the nations and organizations to promote effective international policies, aimed at radically changing the current food system," ​he says. 

At a time when consumers are seeking more authentic, artisan food, the food industry is trying to meet this demand. But can they do this with genuine artisan foods?

This is of course made difficult due to a lack of scalability. “[Artisan producers] may well not be capable of production on a large scale and would probably not deliver the profit margin industrial food corporates demand,” ​artisan food lawyer, Gerry Danby, told FoodNavigator.

Defining artisanal

But companies are trying, and regulators so far have interpreted these attempts differently.

A court in Italy recently cracked down​ ​on two crisps manufacturers falsely claiming to use artisanal production methods. Legal expert and managing director of Italy-based Hylobates Consulting, Dr Luca Bucchini, said at the time the implications of the ruling could be significant if enforced elsewhere - but this would be hampered by the fact that Italy currently has no legal definition of what artisanal means.

This was for an artisanal claim on a consumer-facing product. But within the industry is a different story. The UK’s advertising watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled earlier this year​ that a B2B advert for a bread mix by Bakel could claim to be artisanal because bread manufacturers were aware this merely meant artisanal-style.

baking flour bread artisan

The advert also contained a review from a satisfied customer, the London Bread and Cake Company, said Bakel's mix removed one of the main barriers to creating actual artisanal bread – an "understanding​" of how it is done.

This would no doubt leave the slow food (as opposed to fast food) proponents none too happy. “Product marketing is often confusing, with references to idyllic farming scenes, supposed traditional methods and vague suggestions of ancient flavours,” ​says the foundation.

However, these evocative concepts are usually far removed from the true nature of the advertised product. This is testified by the long lists of additives and unfamiliar ingredients found on the food labels filling our shopping trolleys, light years away from the advertising images and slogans.”

Stilton or Stichelton?

Meanwhile, some artisanal producers feel the same measures put in place by governments and institutions to protect them, do the opposite.

Joe Schneider of Cuckney in the Nottinghamshire region of England had been making raw milk Stilton for decades when, in 1996, it was granted an EU protected designated origin status (PDO).

Stichelton on sale at London's Borough market. © Artisan Food Law

However, the terms of this PDO stipulate that, for food safety reasons, the cheese must be made using pasteurised milk even though, according to Schneider, this kills many of the bacteria that are needed to give the cheese its authentic taste.

Schneider continues to make his cheese in the traditional way – and has a Slow Food Presidium – but is no longer allowed to sell or market it as Stilton and instead calls it Stichelton, the ancient name for the village of Stilton.

Related topics: Market Trends, Sustainability

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