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Italy's food detectives take a bite out of crime

For Giorgio Capovani when it comes to spotting counterfeit cheeses he has a sharp eye. The detective is one of many hired by producers of Italian foods to guarantee that the products are indeed from the place or region stated on its label and not imposters.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Inspector Giorgio Capovani laid out his array of cheese impostors.

A wedge of “Parmesansan” made in Lithuania, a container of “Parmazano Fiorentino” produced in Britain and labeled "dairy free," a chunk of German “Parmezano” sold in Mexico.

The motley assortment of long-expired cheese products he keeps in a refrigerator is proof that rip-offs know no borders nor limits to the imagination. And it's not just cheese. Hams too can be suspect. And basil. And vinegar.

Capovani, whose rotund belly could rival a huge wheel of the cheese officially titled Parmigiano-Reggiano, belongs to a growing breed of food detectives hired by producers of Italian foods that have earned prestigious European Union protection — a guarantee that a foodstuff is indeed from the place or region stated on its its label and not some cheap imitation.

“A museum of a hundred fakes,” is how Capovani proudly describes his collection of counterfeit cheeses.

“We have a network of salesman informants who keep a sharp eye on the competition,” he said.

In the Wild West of gastronomical rip-offs, men like Capovani are a kind of sheriff. They are sworn judicial officers who can demand admission to premises, examine documentation and confiscate products at wholesalers' warehouses or supermarket aisles.

“We can even carry firearms, although we don't,” said another food detective, Domenico D'Aniello.

European Union protection, indicated by the alphabet-soup designations DOP and IGP, has been granted to some of Italy's best-known products, including Bufala Mozzarella, Parma prosciutto, balsamic vinegar from Modena, San Marzano tomatoes, and Gorgonzola cheese.

Across Europe, dozens of food products — from Greek feta cheese to Britain's Jersey Royal potatoes — enjoy EU trademark protection. But in Italy producers have proved particularly fastidious about hunting down counterfeiters.

After all, gourmet foods are one of Italy's biggest industries.

Paolo Facioni, a spokesman for the Italian farm lobby Coldiretti, said DOP and IGP products account for euro9 billion (about US $14 billion) in annual sales — but the figure would be much higher if consumers always bought the real thing.

DOP applies to products whose qualities depend essentially on the territory, including climate, where they are produced. Production must also follow stern rules.

IGP is slightly less rigid. It requires that at least one phase of production take place in a particular geographic area.

Late last year, authorities seized some 1,000 hams in warehouses and supermarkets throughout Italy. The haul may have just been the tip of the iceberg: Investigators say there's no way of telling just how many hams had already vanished into stomachs in the guise of the coveted Parma or San Daniele varieties in the massive DOP scam.

Investigators suspect at least some of the ham was sent from abroad to deboning plants, where they were falsely branded as DOP. Accused in the case are six Italians, including two from the northern town of Ferrara, where police say blacksmiths forged machines to brand hams with the DOP prosciutto trademark of a five-pointed crown.

Criminal complaints have been lodged, but the suspects remain free; they could face fines or even jail time if convicted, police said.

Food detective D'Aniello, a specialist in Parma prosciutto, worked closely with the food fraud unit of the paramilitary Carabinieri police, and his sleuthing took him on a trail of fake hams from Rovigo in northern Italy to Palma di Montechiaro, a tiny town in Sicily.

In a delicatessen on Parma's main street, D'Aniello showed a reporter how the perpetrators' near-perfect prosciutto caper was foiled.

He ran a finger over the rind of one of dozens of hams hanging in the shop and stopped at the tiniest of imperfections in the five-pointed crown. The consortium deliberately makes an almost imperceptible flaw in the crown every two years to thwart counterfeiters, then distributes the branding machine to prosciutto makers. Producers receive a new brand every three months to make sure the imprint on the rind is sharp.

D'Aniello visits producers to ensure all branding machines are accounted for and that none has been sold to a fraudster. “I count them all,” he said.

In a separate case, D'Aniello once tracked suspect hams to Barcelona, Spain, where the jamon trail went cold.

“The Spanish police told us, 'You won't ever find this guy.' They had been looking for the suspect for years — he had some 20 aliases,” the detective recalled.

The Parma prosciutto consortium says it spends some euro500,000 (about $750,000) a year in legal fees to protect its product.

“It's not so much for the monetary damage. It's a damage to our reputation, our image,” said Federico Desimoni, a legal adviser to the consortium. “Even 10 (fraudulent) prosciuttos can hurt. Imagine 1,000. You can lose consumers.”

Parma prosciutto makers swear their ham is sweeter and stress it contains no chemical additives, just a little salt. The prosciutto is aged in cavernous rooms where air quality and sunlight are carefully controlled.

Inspectors like D'Aniello are trained to spot-check hams air-drying in warehouses with ceilings so high they seem like cathedrals. The hams are given five pokes with a needle made from a horse's shin bone which absorbs and quickly releases aromas. The needle is then sniffed to check for Parma prosciutto's characteristic smell.

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheesemaking has its own centuries-old traditions.

The cheese is made with raw milk from cows fed hay grown in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena or Mantua on the right bank of the river Po, and Bologna province on the left bank of the river Reno.

At the family run Scalabrini farm outside Reggio Emilia, Capovani checked the ledgers to make sure they didn't sell more cheese wheels than they had molds — plastic bands stamped with the production date and marked with a series of tiny dots that are the cheese's trademark. Counterfeiters have used wood studded with tiny nails to try to duplicate the insignia.

Parmigiano-Reggiano, when grated, is particularly ripe for rip-offs. So too is Parma ham once it sheds its rind. DOP Parma prosciutto can only be sliced and packaged in the area where it is produced.

Increasingly, DOP duels are fought out in the courts.

In February, the European Court of Justice ruled that the name "Parmesan cheese" must refer exclusively to Parmigiano-Reggiano DOP, even though many European cheesemakers contend Parmesan is just a generic term for hard cheese.

Cheeses that sound enough like Parmesan — like the Lithuanian "Parmesansan" — to potentially mislead consumers are in a legal gray zone.

Big European food companies mostly want to use the Parmesan name for convenient marketing, but Italian counterfeiters try to pass off their cheeses as authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano by forging the trademark.

The prosciutto consortium said it successfully battled, also in the European Court of Justice, a London supermarket chain which did its own slicing.

The Parma consortium lost a 15-year battle in Canada, where someone beat them to their trademark name. Now, consortium members sell their product in Canada as "The Original Prosciutto."

When basil growers in the northwest Genoa area won the right a year ago to use the DOP mark of quality, "we popped corks and toasted" the good news, said Giulio Malavolti, head of a group of farmers from the city famed for its pesto.

Only basil grown in a limited area near the Ligurian coast and famed for a mild climate that gives the leaf its intense aroma can be marketed as DOP.

“We'd like to have our own inspectors, but only the big guys, like the prosciutto makers, can do that,” said Malavolti.