No matter where you are in the world, six out of ten Italian food products that reach the consumer are forgeries. You may be eating or drinking one right now.
Being Italian suggests quality and producers go to great lengths to make their product “sound Italian.” For this reason, brands make use of the geographical origin and the brand, “Italy”, even when the product has nothing to do with the country.
It is estimated that Italy loses about sixty billion euros a year due to these forgeries. This figure is provided by Coldiretti, the National Confederation of Direct Agricultural in its latest report, “A hundred deceptions.”
The official term for this fraudulent practice, Agropyateria, affects all types of products, but mostly cheese, especially the worldwide famous Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano and Mozzarella.
South America is where imitations of Made in Italy are more produced and commercialized. A phenomenon that has now spread to Australia, Canada, Thailand, South Korea, Russia, but also to several EU countries, despite the strict rules on the protection of European designations of geographical origin (DOC).
Producers try to get around the rules in many ways. In Argentina it’s not called “salsa di pomodoro”, but instead “salsa pomarola”; in the US the cheese is not called Parmigiano, but parmesan. Mozzarella and mascarpone, other prime targets, are now being produced in Siberia, Russia!
So, the question is: how can Italy defend itself from this ‘sea of the fake’? The average buyer looks for cheaper food, and the counterfeits are on average cheaper than the original brands by 30 percent.
Despite their best efforts, counterfeit “parmesan” has ballooned into a multibillion dollar market, coming close to the size of the real “Parmigiano” market, a trend that has Italian cheesemakers worried, according to Food & Wine — spurring the need for the tracking tech.
So Parmigiano Reggiano came up with a surprisingly high tech solution. To defend each of their wheels of cheese, the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium, a trade union established in 1934, is teaming up with a Dutch company that specializes in making “casein cheesemarks” called p-Chips.
These chips are tiny transponders that give each wheel of Parmigiano a unique and scannable food tag. Each of these tags, which are both food-safe and smaller than a grain of salt, are then stored on a blockchain —where else? — and can easily be traced. It contains the cheese’s “birth certificate,” its origin, production date, aging time, and quality.
One way to know if your cheese has a microchip is to look for a small hole on the rind of the cheese wheel, where the microchip is inserted. It’s edible and harmless if you do happen to swallow it, but easily identifiable and removable if you prefer to take it out.
Technology has provided a huge improvement over the long-used method of tracking codes the cheesemakers have been using for two decades.
“By integrating p-Chip micro transponders into Casein tags, [the Consortium] can better control its inventory, protect and differentiate its products against look and sound-alike brands and have access to unmatchable track-and-trace technology to protect itself in the case of recalls or other issues,” Joe Wagner, CEO of p-Chip Corporation, in an announcement.
In the second quarter of 2022 alone, the Consortium is adding smart labels to 100,000 Parmigiano wheels before they decide if they want to stick with the technology going forward.