Lately I’ve been thinking about "counterfeiters." More specifically, I’ve been thinking about a Latin saying that dates back to the early 1500’s, Caveat Emptor, or, "Let the buyer beware." In this era, more than any other, it has become crucial that we understand what is truly behind the labels on the products that we buy. Unfortunately this is especially true of Italian products. With global awareness creating unprecedented demand for Italian food items the door has swung open for all sorts of deception and outright fraud.
Here is something to think about: The country of Italy is roughly the size of Arizona. Italy has a food based culture. Plain and simple, the Italians can consume much of the highest quality
goods they produce themselves, and they are willing to pay top dollar for these products. This has created an opening for unscrupulous exporters to repackage all sorts of inferior products and sell them as top quality Italian-made goods. Recent seizures indicate that there is a good chance that the “DOP San Marzano” tomatoes you bought last week, complete with official looking serial numbers, were actually grown in China! Hundreds of thousands of cans have been discovered headed for the European and North American market. You may have spent big bucks for Tuscan Extra Virgin Olive Oil that was actually pomace mixed with almond oil and shipped in tankers to Puglia from North Africa. Of course this deception is not exclusive to Italy. In the past year the Chinese have discovered that roughly half of the highly prized Canadian Ice Wine they consume is a locally made fake.
So how do we insure that we are getting what we pay for? The short answer is… you can’t. When there is this much money to be made criminals are often a step ahead of the law.
I have found that the best way to protect yourself from label fraud is to disregard the labels completely! My advice is forget DOP, IGT, VPN, DOCG and the whole alphabet soup of supposed indicators of origin and quality. Ignore what is on the package and concentrate solely on what is in the package. In the end taste is subjective and the only thing that really counts is whether or not you enjoy the flavor of the finished product.
I have been conducting blind taste testing of tomato products in my restaurants for over 10 years and the results are illuminating. In blind tests 95% of my customers prefer high quality California tomatoes to DOP San Marzano tomatoes. I have had similar results with Mozzarella and with “00” flour. What is particularly interesting is that 90% of our guests assume that the preferred product is the Italian import. That is the power of Italy as a brand. Certainly the top quality foods of Italy are an almost ethereal experience, but the truth is you may find a great olive oil from Greece or Spain that is comparable, but for a fraction of the cost. Put hype aside, trust your palate, evaluate objectively, and you can determine if the product you are buying is worth the price. Remember that in the end you are going to eat the food, not just read the label.