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Italian sounding products and how to avoid them

Italian sounding, aka when the products you buy sound Italian but are not

Italian sounding is defined as the phenomenon consisting in the use of words as well as images, color combinations (the tricolor flag), geographical references, brands evocative of Italy to promote and market products – especially but not exclusively agri-food – that in reality are not Made in Italy. This definition became popular during the 2015 Expo in Milan, where the best products of the Made in Italy were displayed to an international audience.

Italian sounding products

Italy is one of the most important countries of the world, talking about cuisine, food and wine production and it is also one of the most important tourist attractions of Europe. However, this fame causes also some problems to the traditional Italian food and wine products. In fact, a lot of producers all around the world tried to copy some Italian products, starting from Parmigiano cheese to different style of wines. Obviously, is not so difficult to produce similar products outside of Italy if the producer follows the general production process, especially for processed products like cheeses or bakery products, and it is not so easy for the final consumer to recognize an original Italian product on the shelve of a shop.

IGP, DOP, IGT or DOC? Designations of origin abound.

For all these reasons, European Union and Italy decided to state Designations of Origin for the best foods and wines produced in the country; there are IGT and DOC for wines, IGP and DOP for foods. Products with a Designation of Origin Certificate must follow specific production rules and must get the raw materials/ingredients from a specific designated territory, bigger or smaller depending on the specific production regulation. These kind of products often display a band on the packaging, indicating the name of the Designation of Origin and the stamp of the government, as a guarantee. However, some of the most famous Italian products are not protected by a Designation of Origin regulation, like Mozzarella cheese or Pizza itself, so they can be easily copied and made outside of the country, reaching a worse quality compared to the original products.

However, Designations of Origins did not solve the problem because counterfeit products violate registered trademarks or other distinctive signs protected by law such as, for example, the designations of origin (DOC, DOP, DOCG, IGP, IGT, STG), therefore the counterfeiting is legally punishable. On the other hand, Italian sounding products cannot be classified as illegal from a strictly legal point of view, but still represent “significant damage to the Italian economy and potential exports of Made in Italy”, according to a 2012 scientific study by IPERICO Institute.

Italian sounding, aka when the products you buy sound Italian but are not

The reasons behind the spread of Italian sounding products

There are two main reasons for the spread of Italian Sounding products all around the world: the Italian Migration, that started in 1850 and finished in the 40s of the XX Century, and the Globalization process during the last decades. First, the migration process brought a lot of Italian people all around the world, especially North and South America, bringing a lot of Italian recipes and, in some cases, ingredients all over the world. Italian migrants, that were mainly employed in low-skilled jobs, started to found restaurants in the main cities where they migrated, expanding the Italian food culture. Migrants from Southern Italy represented the majority, especially people from Calabria, Campania and Sicilia.

Then the globalization process, that allowed different culture to come together in a single place, from the biggest cities in the world to the small countryside village: you will always find an Italian restaurant in your way. Suddenly, the melting-pot of culture has led some cheaters to sell fake products with Italian sounding names or labels: for example, frozen pizza with the Tricolor flag on the packaging. The same for Italian restaurants, that are often managed by non-Italian people that offer fake Italian foods. Thanks to globalization, the appreciation for the culture and food and wine of the beautiful country has spread in more recent years even within places not directly affected by the large migratory flows mentioned above. This diffusion has generated a demand that is often not adequately informed in terms of the actual typicality and quality of original Italian products, or is hardly reached by such products. This offers the opportunity for companies with few scruples to place on the market products with names, graphics or other elements that somehow refer to Italy, even if they are not Made in Italy.

However, there are also some cases in which Italian sounding products are created by the Italians themselves, in some way. Starting from Parmesan cheese, a Parmigiano-like product produced and sold in the US and Canada: the name Parmesan was created by the Italo-American migrants to help them sell the cheese that they produced in the US following the Italian recipe. This product has been so successful that it became much more popular than the original Parmigiano cheese.

And then there’s the Gallo Nero story

In other cases, Italian migrants “betrayed” their home country. This was the case for E. & J. Gallo Winery: this winery was founded by Italian migrants in the West Coast, starting from vineyards owned in California. This winery has become some of the most important in the world and, in the 90s, sued the Chianti Classico DOCG Consortium for the use of the “Gallo Nero” name on the labels. Obviously, Gallo was also the name of the winery, strictly related to the surname of the founders. However, the origins of these two names are completely different. In fact, the “Gallo Nero” (black rooster) displayed on the Chianti Classico wine labels is related to a legend that dates back to Renaissance. During the Middle Ages, the Republic of Siena and the Republic of Florence continually fought for control of the Chianti area. After many years of bloody wars, it was decided to determine the borders of the two republics with a particular agreement, a kind of competition. Two knights would have left, one from Siena and the other from Florence, and the border would have been at the point where they met. But how to establish the departure time of the two riders? They decided that the first crowing of the rooster would start the race.

The Sienese chose a white rooster, the Florentines chose a black rooster.

The black rooster of the Florentines was fasted for a few days and caged, so when the day set for the challenge arrived, the black rooster, who was very hungry, crowed much earlier and the rider left with a large advantage. The rooster of the Sienese woke up and crowed at dawn, but when the knights met, they were a few kilometers from Siena, and there the border between the two enemy republics was decided. Today the black rooster remains in the world the symbol of the Chianti Classico. On the other side, E. & J. Gallo name is only related to the surname of the family. Suddenly, E. & J. Gallo winery won the case so the Chianti Classico producers are no longer allowed to use the term “Gallo Nero” on their labels.

Prosecco: another word for a dispute

There is also another interesting example in the world of wine. Prosecco is one of the most famous and popular Italian sparkling wine all around the world; suddenly, before 2009 the name “Prosecco” was used to call the grape variety and not the wine itself. For this reason, Prosecco grapes were shipped all around the world, especially in Australia where this grape variety found an ideal place to grow. In 2009, Prosecco DOC and Prosecco DOCG were created in order to protect these original Italian products: the Italian lawmakers decided to change the name of the grape variety, calling it “Glera”, and using the term “Prosecco” to call the wine itself. However, Australian producers still use the term Prosecco on their labels because they state that “Prosecco” is the name of the grape and the fact that Italian government changed the name only to easily protect its product. There is a dispute over the use of the term “Prosecco” and there are not International laws that can overcome the two different points of view.

Moreover, this commercial logic is increasingly taking hold in a period in which many Italians seem to have finally become aware of the value linked to the Made in Italy brand and consequently tend to favor products linked to the territory and local flavors. In terms of consumer needs, safety comes first, followed by health and well-being, experiential value and practicality. If, however, even behind the best-known brands of national production, perceived as a guarantee of high quality and food safety, there are hidden foods of now entirely foreign origin and said bluntly, sometimes even “poor”, the consumer cannot help but feel betrayed. , when not deceived, even in the absence of a crime. In the dynamic that is thus affirming itself, fake and low-quality foods are not only those produced abroad, but also those coming from Italian companies that are unable to keep up with the enormous demand for Italian products. In a culture dominated by counterfeiting, the desire to truly invest in Made in Italy and protect it remains a minority. Those who lose the most in this mechanism are on the one hand the local producers, forced to lower quality and prices, impoverishing themselves; on the other hand, of course, consumers, who receive increasingly low-quality products. Italian Sounding is one of the main causes of the reduced incidence of Italian exports on turnover (20%).

On the other side, the Italian Sounding topic creates a debate from the other side with a lot of criticism. In fact, paradoxically, in order to combat the spread of products that have Italian sounding names, but are not authentically of Italian origin, a substantive phrase has been coined which is not authentically English, but only English sounding. The linguist Licia Corbolante defines the pseudo-Anglicism “Italian Sounding” (often written with both initials in capital letters) an “imitative counterfeiting”. First of all, Italian institutions and mass media use the term as a noun: examples include “Permanent Observatory on Italian Sounding“, “the turnover of Italian Sounding”, “projects to contrast Italian Sounding”, ” the Italian Sounding market “. Instead in English, Corbolante specifies, “Italian sounding” (with a small “s”) has if anything the function of an adjective, such as in “Italian sounding name / voice / product” (“Nome / voce / prodotto che suona italiano” ); “Sounding” also exists as a noun, but has other meanings: for example, “sounding” in the sense of “exploratory investigation”.

You can agree or reject this point of view, but it is pretty interesting to see how Italian people have completely different opinions, making it very hard to promote the Made In Italy all around the world efficiently. The producers and the customers must always try to find a perfect balance between the pride of being Italian and the needs of International markets and International consumers, that obviously have completely different taste compared to the Italian themselves.


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