Italian Cheesemakers Upset By U.S. Tariffs

Oct 31, 2019
Originally published on October 31, 2019 10:15 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some of the most recent U.S. tariffs imposed by the Trump administration have infuriated Italians, people who support the sale of formaggio, which is Italian for cheese. If you think that does not sound like such a big deal, listen to NPR's Sylvia Poggioli.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Earlier this month in Rome, a young woman crashed U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's meeting with Italian officials.

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ALICE MARTINELLI: I got you a present. The prime minister knows what I'm talking about.

POGGIOLI: Before security guards could stop her, TV producer Alice Martinelli handed Pompeo a hunk of cheese.

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MARTINELLI: This is Parmigiano Reggiano, and it's what we make best in Italy. So it's something our families make with the heart every day.

POGGIOLI: It was Parmigiano, what Italians consider the king of cheeses. And she asked Pompeo to bring it to President Trump. A few days later in Washington, Italian President Sergio Mattarella asked Trump if the tariffs could be avoided. Trump seemed willing to listen.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He thought we were a little bit harsh on Italy, and we don't want to be harsh on Italy. We'll never do that. So we'll look at that.

POGGIOLI: But two days later, the Trump administration imposed $7.5 billion worth of tariffs on numerous European products, such as French wine, Spanish olives and Italian cheeses. They're the result of a World Trade Organization ruling allowing the U.S. to recoup damages from what it ruled were unfair European Union subsidies to the aircraft maker Airbus. But as Nicola Bertinelli, president of the consortium of Parmigiano producers, points out, Italy had nothing to do with Airbus.

NICOLA BERTINELLI: (Through interpreter) The real aim is to give a boost to imitation Parmesan cheeses made in the U.S. In other words, the tariffs are a reprisal against our products because theirs are not allowed to be sold in the European Union.

POGGIOLI: Each wheel of Parmigiano is imprinted with the letters DOP, meaning protected designation of origin. It's an EU label that guarantees the authenticity of the product's geographic origin and protects local producers from cheaper imitations.

U.S. milk producers complain that the EU abuses use of geographical indications to limit competition from American cheese exports that use common food names. But Bertinelli insists Parmigiano is part of Italy's cultural heritage, as important as the Colosseum.

BERTINELLI: (Through interpreter) It's an emblem of Italian know-how. The taste, aroma and scents of this cheese arrive from the territory where it's made. And it's the result of a centuries-old process that led to cheese-making excellence.

POGGIOLI: Parmigiano is made around the northern city of Parma - hence its name - with milk from free-range cows fed only on local pastures. Each wheel can weigh up to 90 pounds and is aged for at least 24 months. To determine a wheel's perfection, a cheese master taps each one with a small bronze hammer.

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DARIO PEVERI: (Foreign language spoken).

POGGIOLI: If an expert hears the tone is off, Parmigiano producer Dario Peveri (ph) told Italy's RAI TV, the wheel is destroyed. For the estimated 50,000 people who produce Parmigiano, the tariffs are a devastating blow. The U.S. is the second-largest export market.

But the biggest victim will be the U.S. consumer, who has to decide whether to pay more for Parmigiano or settle for much cheaper, U.S.-made Parmesan.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "CHILL KINGDOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.