Gotta love those Italians. They know what’s important in life.
While the U.S. Congress tussles today over a 15-billion-bucks bailout of the American auto industry, Italian lawmakers are busy trying to save the cheese. Parmesan cheese, that is.
According to a story in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, the Italian government is buying some 100,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and donating them to charity. The move is designed to shore up an industry that is being shredded by a public unwilling to pay what it costs producers to crank out the hard, pale yellow, nutty-tasting cheese.
Apparently, demand for the king of grating cheeses is strong in Italy as well as in other European countries and the United States. But the cheese producers claim they’re spending about 8 Euros to produce a kilo of cheese (that’s about $10.50 for 2.2 pounds) and they’re only getting 7.4 Euros per kilo back from sales. (In order to wear the official Parmigiano Reggiano seal, the milk must come from hay-fed cows that are milked twice a day; and the resulting cheese wheel must ripen for at least one year, being brushed and turned once each week.)
According to the WSJ: “At the root of the parmigiano problem is that the industry is made up of about 430 small, family-owned businesses that dot the plains outside the northern city of Parma….The fragmentation means that producers have little leverage in negotiating prices with wholesalers that buy the cheese and resell it to supermarkets and other retailers.”
When Parmigiano Reggiano producers try to raise the price of their cheese, wholesalers start pushing alternatives -- such as Grana Padana, which has a similar taste and texture but takes less time to make and is less expensive – into the marketplace.
First it was the banks that needed bailing out. Then the national airline, Alitalia. Now, it’s the parmesan.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s next.
“We’ve never received a dime in state aid,” complains Vincenzo Oliviero, the head of the association of buffalo mozzarella producers, who says that buffalo mozzarella sales have plunged 18 percent over the last year. (The decline is due to consumer skittishness about cheese that’s made close to Naples which faced a horrific garbage crisis last year.)
Somehow I just can’t see Congress stressing out over a bailout for Velveeta.