August 8, 2017

Eating in Italy: Facts and Fiction

Victoria Brown

Victoria Brown

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

On every street corner, small cafes with standing-height countertops serve cappuccino, espresso, thick, pudding-like hot chocolate and more to hundreds of commuting Italians. Each morning, as I joined the crush of commuters on Turin’s underground tube station, I looked forward to that first sip of frothy coffee-milk. The accessibility and abundance of coffee on every street corner was one of my favorite parts of life in Italy.

Life in Italy wasn’t all I expected however. In many ways it was exciting, surprising and new; in other ways, it was more similar to life in America than I had envisioned. Everyone who visits Italy talks about the food: how fresh is it, how delicious, how local, homemade and small scale it is. During my month in Turin, I found that this wasn’t always the case. Of course, the food was delicious and quintessentially Italian, but my host mother and thousands of other residents shopped at an immense big box store that felt bigger than the largest US store I’ve ever been in. When I went on site visits to coffee giant Lavazza, fruit companies, beef producers, a grocery store cooperative, dairy factories and more, I discovered that, much to my surprise, while espousing ideas of small, artisanal production, these companies were often not only enormous but industrialized.

I could smell the coffee the moment I stepped off the bus for the first stop on my tour—Lavazza. It hung heavy in the air like the smell of baking cookies in a small kitchen. In the main foyer, a giant espresso cup filled with a creamy head of acrylic coffee hung suspended from the wall. The tour group filed out through the other end of the lobby and up a stairway whose walls were lined with tantalizing pictures of coffee cascading in chocolate-y streams and pooling in foamy heads upon glass mugs. Upstairs, a Ferrari-red couch stretched across a room where old coffee machines and special-edition espresso cups were displayed in reflective glass cases along the walls.

Inside a lecture room in the headquarters, a heavily accented speaker talked (in English) about Lavazza’s humanitarian mission to promote fairly harvested coffee beans. Someone followed up, asking how these policies were enforced or encouraged. In a roundabout way, the lecturer explained that all policy adoptions were entirely voluntary and that Lavazza did not divest from farms or suppliers that chose not to follow the policies described. This gave me pause: was Lavazza really promoting the fair policies they espoused?

About two hours outside of Turin, the Piedmontese Fat Ox museum is filled with regional maps and ceramic figurines of cows. In one room a wall-sized projector screen shows faded black and white pictures of farmers shoveling hay, prize-winning fat oxen at fairs, and sullen families outside bygone farmhouses. My guide explained the genetic mutation that made Fat Oxen so prolifically muscular. He talked about feeding methods and showed me old birthing equipment. As a side note, he mentioned that most calves must now be delivered by Caesarean because the mothers have a genetic defect that makes natural birthing dangerous. In essence, we had bred cows to be so fat that they could not birth naturally.

An hour down the road from the Fat Ox Museum, the steady drizzle made the cow manure stamped into the ground loosen and trickle across the concrete surface. I carefully picked my way through these “presents” to the giant pen where all the cows cluster. (Despite my best attempts, I still spent the better part of the evening scraping dried cow manure off my shoes.) The metal pen stretches at least a football field length, separated into sections by more metal pipes. Inside, cows tread unsteadily on mounds of manure and hay. The cows traipse closer to the farmer, sticking their heads through the diagonal crosspieces where they wait to be fed.

As the farmer tells me about the generations-old tradition of Fat Oxen—the large fairs, the prize animals, the feasts—I am struck by the trappings of a modern farm with high-density animal farming, evident against the gray background of an Italian November. I wondered: are the methods of breeding and consuming Fat Oxen a traditional way of life or a modern factory output?

Back home in the US, I tried finding more information about some of the other foods I consumed, but tracking down information about where and how a company produces its products is quite difficult. When I called larger companies, representatives often shut me down, citing that information was “proprietary.” According to the FDA, proprietary information did not even need to be shared with the FDA before the 2016 Food Safety and Modernization Act. As consumers we have little to no recourse for attaining that information. One company’s source map purported to share information on their farms, but the map showed only select pictures of bucolic farmsteads and listed the number of farms in the area. Looking at the map, I could neither determine who was producing the ingredients, nor how to contact them.

By asking for transparency, I, as a consumer, want to know where my food was produced; who produced, harvested, and processed it and under what conditions; what chemicals or specialized techniques were used to grow or process it; how far it traveled and by what means; and what the potential detrimental effects to my health may be.

Obviously, many companies do not want to provide this information because it may decrease sales or force them to change their production methods in a way that shrinks their profit margins. However, in a world where climate change threatens to upend our lives and destroy livelihoods, the impacts of agriculture, 9% of total US greenhouse gas emissions for 2015, are more important than ever. We as consumers need to begin to make more educated choices about how the food we are consuming is produced and what the impacts of that production are on the environment. Large-scale production isn’t necessarily bad, but the lack of transparency and the misleading depiction of large, industrial production as small-scale businesses is troubling. To begin making more educated food choices, we need transparency and, as my visits to Italian producers showed, sometimes, transparency is more elusive than we think.

Because current laws do not adequately protect consumers or mandate that we are able to access information about the way our food is produced, the first step is to work towards policy changes that enable the conscious consumer to truly uncover how their food is produced. We as consumers can work for increased transparency by supporting policymakers who run on a platform of regulating large businesses and protecting the consumer. We can also vote with our dollars by purchasing food from small-scale suppliers such as booths at farmers markets, produce stalls and grocery stores that are dedicated to stocking sustainably sourced items.

Another way I’m trying to educating myself about the items I buy is to improve my knowledge of different certifications and what they truly mean. Take eggs for example. Pasture-fed and free-range have no regulations for the outdoor environment, meaning a small plot of concrete behind a 10,000-hen house is sufficient to consider eggs “free-range.” The disparity between what we think labels mean and what is actually required to use that certification can often lead us not only to spend more money, but to believe we are supporting an alternative system while we are doing nothing of the sort.

As my visits to producers and suppliers in Turin demonstrated, the reality of food production is often quite far from the images and impressions provided by packaging and marketing. The lack of transparency in our food systems is hurting our environment and threatening our health. By gaining transparency, we will gain more control over our food systems, our environmental impact and our health.

Images: Katie Bradley (top); Allison Kaika (middle and bottom).

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