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Can NI's Agri-Food Sector learn from Food Artistry Italian-Style?

From the land that gave us the classical composer, Giuseppe Verdi and opera legend, Pavarotti, Belfast PR Consultant Michele Filippi explores how Emilia Romagna's artistry extends to its food producers and how making and marketing their produce may provide insights for Northern Ireland's agri-food sector...

Emilia Romagna is home to some of the most well-known Italian food products. Names like Prosciutto di Parma (Parma Ham); Parmigiano di Reggiano (Parmesan); and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (Balsamic Vinegar) are music to many gourmands' ears. The popularity of these products has led to 'me-too' brands impersonating as the real thing. Italian words and emblems are used to create the perception that the copies are Italian. But in reality the origin of these imposter brands can be anywhere but Italy.

Not surprisingly then, the food producers I visited along the Via Emilia have been using the legal powers of the EU to protect their product names from misuse. Indeed, Italy gave birth to a seal to protect authentic Italian food in 1963 called the Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC). This certificate of supervised origin was then adopted by the EU to introduce a system of protection regarding food production. Hence Prosciutto di Parma PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and Parmigiano di Reggiano PGI (Protected Geographical Indication). These are products with protected status and the classification verifies their authenticity and origin. This special status may be associated with various characteristics from breeds and breeding techniques used to origin of raw materials; from boundaries of the geographical area of production through to duration of aging and know-how used.

During a visit to Parmigiano Reggiano producer, Latteria Sociale San Lucio, Director Simone Ficarelli emphasised how important these classifications are to the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium of cheese makers. "If the packaging has an Italian flag, our advice to the consumer is to be wary and look instead for the PGI emblem."

From the number of registered products and marketing campaigns featuring the geographical indication (GI) protected status, it is clear that the Italian agri-food sector values this scheme. Out of 25 EU countries listed in the European Commission's database of registered products, Italy is the No. 1 ranking country with 310 registered products across a number of categories and their applications grow year-on-year. The UK is at 7th place, with Northern Ireland having only 3 of 72 that are currently the UK's registered products: Armagh Apples, Lough Neagh Eels and Comber Earlies. The Republic of Ireland is at 19th place.

A 2012 EU study demonstrates that the EU's classification scheme results in increased margins for producers: "in most cases GI products achieve a price premium over the corresponding standard products and as far as producers of final products are concerned, in most cases the gross margin for final GI products was higher than that for standard products." The study also identified elements of added value other than higher gross margins: "protection of intellectual property rights; improved visibility; access to new markets; better access to promotion funds and investment aid; better support under rural development; positive impacts on the GI area as a whole."

The last set of figures published by the European Commission on sales value show that from 2005 to 2010 there was a 19% increase in sales value of GI agricultural products and foodstuffs listed and that the year on year rate of increase has been accelerating.

A recent Irish Agribusiness report by KPMG* published in the Irish Farmers Journal points to some reasons why. It indicates there is a strong consumer trend towards regional, artisanal products that Italian consumers have always supported and that their producers are becoming increasingly protective about. The KPMG report reveals that consumers in Ireland are purchasing more artisan and speciality products than ever before. "The result is that some of the best known global brands and food companies are suffering whilst more artisan products are thriving."

The report cites the revival of farmers markets as further evidence that some consumers are prepared to pay a premium for hand-made or craft products that demonstrate an awareness of the environment and sustainable production that matches their own value system. It is widely accepted that the drivers behind these trends are an increased focus on nutritional values and food scares, such as the horsemeat scandal. Such scares have been shaking consumer confidence and leading to an increased desire to understand where food is produced.

This body of research also provides evidence that today's consumers are looking beyond superficial branding in their purchasing decisions. "Today's so-called 'millennial' consumers are savvy, educated, vocal, and looking for assurances of healthy nutritional food."

This would appear to suggest that superficial branding on the packaging is no longer enough. “A strong brand is not enough to attract a premium," the report concludes and poses the question if Ireland is doing enough to target consumer willing to pay for the very best?

"Our beef and lamb could be sold as a luxury product similar to Champagne."

A recent article entitled "Craft versus Kraft" by Gary Silverman in the Financial Times also explores why some of the world's best known food brands are coming under pressure whilst artisan products are thriving. It concludes that "the millennial generation of consumers are shaking up the food industry. They want to know how their food is being made and who is making it."

Ironically, the use of the word 'Brand' as a marketing term originated from the livestock 'branding' iron. At the Rosa D'Angelo Salumificio, part of the 150-strong Prosciutto di Parma consortium that sources pigs born and reared in only 10 regions of central Italy exclusively, we learned how the Ducal Crown emblem is fired into the pork haunch when it passes quality checks to become a Prosciutto di Parma DOP.  Likewise, Parmigiano di Reggiano DOP seal is impressed on to the cheese rind during the formation process conferring an authentic branding which is inextricably linked to the product itself.

I visited several inspiring examples of local food producers creating linkages with agritourism in Emilia Romagna including the organic farm & wine producer Corte D'Aibo near Bologna and Zerioli Wines near Piacenza. Both these hidden gems offer farmhouse-style accommodation and dining using food & wine made from produce off the farm or the surrounding area.

At the top end, was the 'Academia Barilla' cookery school, where we learned how to appreciate the simplicity of a home-made pasta dish. The Academia is part of the Barilla Centre, set up in 2003 by Italy's No 1. pasta brand, Barilla, on the grounds of its original factory in Parma. The aim of the school is to educate chefs and consumers about art of Italian gastronomy. It is ideally situated opposite the company's own luxury hotel and includes a library of thousands of classic cookery books dating as far back as the16th century. These are available to anyone to view online and if you can't visit Barilla in person, there's a substantial Facebook community of over 17,000 people and over 7,500 Twitter followers.

The school's mission is to safeguard Italian food products made by reputable artisans and safeguard certified denominations from poor-quality imitations and to promote and spread the understanding of these products. “We think of the Gastronomic Library as a body of knowledge that will become a resource for the entire national and international community of people interested in food and gastronomic tradition," explained its Director, Gianluigi Zanotti.  "Food shouldn't be seen as a commodity, a culture of food is needed where we are eating less food but of a better quality."  

A niche for Northern Ireland agri-food?

With the NI food & tourism industry gearing up for 2016 NI Year of Food it is interesting to consider what our sector can learn from 'the Italian way'. What role will produce of stringent origin and provenance and the EU's classification scheme play in our agri-food marketing and PR strategy going forward?  The growing body of evidence would seem to strengthen the case for a Northern Ireland positioning based on credible, indigenous produce made from locally sourced raw materials that capitalises on our key agricultural strengths. It would seem to be a very plausible niche that NI food producers could occupy and one where they can move beyond price sensitivity. Recent consumer trends and marketing insights auger well for this approach.

Investing in our strengths, for example in dairy, beef and lamb, but not forgetting fish, could facilitate the exploitation of export markets willing to pay a premium and, if marketed well, could signal economic success. The influence that social media, in particular Facebook, is now playing in consumer food choices also bodes well for an online narrative and PR strategy that satisfies the consumer's desire for natural, fully traceable food, opening up exciting opportunities for linkages for agritourism here too.

By Michele Filippi© This article also appeared in the Top100 edition of Ulster Business Magazine

Sources:

  • Marketing Week, 2 June 2015 ' New demand driving sustainable food growth'
  • Irish Farmers Journal in association with KPMG Report May 2015 'Agribusiness'
  • Financial Times, 16 March 2015 'Craft versus Kraft' by Gary Silverman
  • Arete 2012 'Study on assessing the added value of PDO/PGI products' commissioned  by the European Commission
  • European Commission Database of Origin of Registration (DOOR)
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