Italy Bails Out Parmesan Cheese

December 19th, 2008 | Sources: Wall Street Journal

While US lawmakers are busy bailing out banks, insurance giants and we’ll see about car companies, the Italians have rushed to bail out Parmesan cheese makers.

What’s next, buffalo mozzarella?

And how could it come to this for the iconic pasta-topper when demand remains strong in Italy and abroad?

It’s simple. Producers can’t cover their costs.

Marco Iemmi and his 7 employees for example produce 15 thousand 77-pound Parmesan wheels a year. Last year he sold them at 7.4 Euros per kilogram, but he spent 8 Euros per kilo to produce them.

“It’s a tragic situation,” Iemmi told the Wall Street Journal. “I’ll have to close up shop unless things improve.”

So thank heavens for the Italian government which announced it will subsidize Parmesan makers by purchasing 100,000 wheels and donating them to charity.

Most Italians on ‘Strada Principale’ support the bailout.

“Parmigiano is almost indispensable,” Antonio Piermani told the Journal. The Rome wine-bar owner buys 3 kilos per month and swears that any substitute “would compromise the taste of the dish.”

Italy’s cheese crisis is the product of a fragmented producer sector. The world’s supply of Parmesan comes from about 400 tiny, family-owned businesses located near Parma in northern Italy. They understand economies of scale, but refuse to consolidate.

“We have an ancient mind-set,” Iemmi explained. “Each one of us wants to take care of his own little business.”

Meaning producers have no leverage with wholesalers, and not even the Pope would dare to mess with the meticulous Parmesan production process that has remained unchanged for several hundred years.

There’s even price competition, at least in Italy where 80% of the world’s Parmesan is consumed. Grana Padano, another grated cheese has a similar taste and costs less to produce.


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