The cheese cooler at a supermarket in downtown Toronto is brimming with mozzarella cheese with Italian names framed in the famous red and green of a country where food-making – and eating – is rooted in centuries-old techniques and traditions.
But none of the cheese is produced in Italy: It's made in Canada and given Italian names – and the food makers of Italy, and their government, aren't happy. Andrea Olivero, the country's vice-minister of agriculture, food and forestry, who is leading a group of 70 Italian food makers on a three-city trade mission to Canada, said local shoppers are being misled and Italy's exporters are being short-changed.
Canadian shoppers buy $3.6-billion worth of "Italian-sounding" food every year, compared with $950-million of Italian-made food. Provolone, prosciutto and Parmesan: The list of Canadian-made products with Italian names is long and, to many Italian producers, lamentable.
"There are two big problems; one is that we are cheating the consumers. They often buy products that are expensive, but are not what they think they are buying," Mr. Olivero said in an interview.
"And of course because these products are often of very low quality, the consumer does not understand what is the value and taste of a quality product. Of course, I'm not going to hide from you – the other problem is the loss of revenue for the Italian producers," Mr. Olivero added.
Canada's free trade agreement with Europe is expected to come into effect next year, and will offer food makers on both sides greater tariff-free access to new consumers while providing protection to some European food makers that sell products with regionally protected names.
But Canadian companies will still be able to sell their version of Parmigiano-Reggiano as Parmesan. And they can sell their Gorgonzola as gorgon zola – two words. For the Italians, this is a problem. Mr. Olivero said the popularity of Italian names in Canada and elsewhere is a sign of the potential market available to Italy's exporters, and he wants to be sure "imitation" doesn't lead to "fraud."
So does Dante Dall'Aglio, who usually goes to work in an apron and big boots but on Monday was wearing a grey suit with a pink-striped tie and brown shoes. Mr. Dall'Aglio joined the group of Italian food makers touring Canada to promote the cheese he makes in the home region of Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is a brand protected in Italy and Europe.
Each of the 5,500 cheese wheels he produces in a year is inspected at every step in the process, and each gets a unique stamp – his bear number 222 – so consumers know where and how it was made. Everything that goes into the cheese – the milk, the cows it comes from, even the hay they eat – is produced on his farm.
It's this traceability and attention to detail the Italians refer to when they talk about the quality and heritage of their food.
"We're not condemning the people that want to imitate us. We like competition," Mr. Olivero said. "We just need to make sure people understand what is local cheese and what is coming from Italy. Because behind the brand there is not just a place where it was produced, there is innovation, there is research behind all of this, and that is why the quality of that product is at such a high level."
One of Canada's biggest cheese makers, Saputo Inc., bristles at the suggestion that only companies based in Italy can make Italian cheese. Pamela Nalewajek, vice-president of business development at Saputo, said the company doesn't just make Italian-sounding cheese – such as mozzarella and bocconcini – it makes Italian cheese, period. The company was founded by Giuseppe Saputo, an Italian cheese maker who came to Montreal in 1950 and began making cheese and delivering it by bicycle to fellow expatriates who longed for the food they left behind.
"Every master cheese maker has his recipe, whether it's a master cheese maker in Italy or a master cheese maker who immigrated from Italy to Canada," Ms. Nalewajek said. "He has his recipes and those recipes continue to be passed on to generations to be made for Canadian consumers."
Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University's Schulich School of Business, said most of the Italian names seen on grocery shelves have become generic and lost their ties to Italy, a country that has been less successful than France at protecting time-honoured or regional names, such as Champagne.
"You can't trademark 'Italian sounding;' you can possibly protect certain specific Italian words," he said. "Just because it sounds like it, can you do anything about it? The answer is no."