Animal Farm?

A Parmigiano-Reggiano commercial currently running on Italian TV shows a spotted cow being chased away from a barn where the cheese is being matured. The scene is a good reflection of a problem which will soon afflict all those consumers who are demanding transparency from manufacturers. Why? Because if, on the one hand, the cow can’t get into the place where the Parmigiano Reggiano is being made, on the other, transgenic feed is sure to find its way into barns – and we just won’t have the wherewithal to understand exactly which animals ate the stuff.

It’s clear that the European authorities are trying to open up to transgenic products. They have even asked the countries that imposed a moratorium on new GMO authorizations (Italy, France, Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg and Greece) to abolish it, to approve new legislation on GMO labeling and traceability and to find a common position at continental level. Only that the new norms – the Community-wide regulation proposal is currently under discussion – envisage tolerance of an ‘accidental’ 1% of GMOs in foodstuffs and, even if they oblige producers to include mention of the presence of transgenic products on labels for animal feed labels, they fail to tell us that, if animals eat GMO feed, the fact must be notified to future purchasers, if they happen to be sold. All of which means that any dish could include 1% transgenic content without prior warning (why should less be less harmful, by the way?), and without any guarantee that the meat, milk and cheese we eat are from animals that haven’t eaten transgenic feed.

The Italian government now has to express an opinion. I hope it acts wisely and is not afraid to stand up for itself. I hope it acts like the Turin public prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello, who just a few days agobegan the first GMO fraud trial proceedings against three businessmen charged of selling a product ‘Quadrettoni di soia’, a sort of breakfast biscuit, ,which they declared to be GMO-free, but which actually contained GM soya imported from India via the UK. The case came to light in the course of an investigation launched following the checks which a special Piedmont anti-adulteration squad have been carrying out regularly on high-risk products such as rape, soya and corn since 1999. Incidentally, these checks have also revealed that Alosy 2, a powdered baby formula made by Nestlé, contains GMOs. Federconsumatori , the Italian Consumers Association, demanded that the product be banned, but thanks to the 1% loophole, the new European legislation is going ‘save’ it.

The facts show that the people who want us to ingurgitate GMOs at all costs (even in baby food and apparently GMO-free foodstuffs) always come out on top in the end. Let’s hope they don’t move into the field of typical foods, which ought to be outside the danger zone, as it were. But we’ve got to be careful; it’s our heritage which is at stake.

By law, the cattle which produce the milk for Parmigiano-Reggiano must eat only natural feed, which ought to be an automatic guarantee against GM contamination. There are, alas, holes in the new European legislation. Protection is left in the hands of the man in the commercial who chases the suspect cow out of the barn – as he explains to some children exactly what Parmigiano is. We can be confident that man is going to act for the good of his product, though the law won’t help him in any way. But accidents may happen, and the risk is that we are going to end up destroying the solid image of many quality products.

The trial called by Guariniello, the first and, as yet, only example of fraud-fighting in this particular sector, needs to be followed with close attention. Do we want to let farming go to the dogs or not? If we take the wrong step, the man in the Parmigiano commercial is going to find himself in an empty barn one day.

Carlo Petrini

First printed in La Stampa on 11/11/2001

(adapted by John Irving)

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