Open letter to McDonald's from Carlo Petrini

Here is my translation of Carlo's article in La Repubblica (http://ricerca.repubblica.it/repubblica/archivio/repubblica/2010/02/03/lettera-al-panino-mcitaly.html) :

If there has ever been a sign of the moral bankruptcy of Silvio Berlusconi's government, it can be seen on the apron draped on the slim figure of Italy's agricultural minister, Luca Zaia, who has partnered with McDonald's to launch the McItaly line. The goal of this partnership is to "globalize Italian flavor" by putting typical Italian ingredients into the McItaly sandwiches. Matthew Fort of the Guardian newspaper has commented that this official sponsorship is a "monstrous act of national treason", as bad as other acts committed by Berlusconi's government that Fort also listed in detail. It's true that Zaia's promotional blitz took place at the very same McDonald's where Slow Food was born, in Rome's Piazza di Spagna, yet I want to rise above the other skeptics and at least keep an open mind to this "McItaly" project. So let's open a debate.

The ad campaign claims that the McItaly is better than the usual burger McDonald's sells because it caters to the country's tastes for its own products (setting aside all the regional ingredients). There is a dissonance between the typical taste of a McDonald's hamburger and the typical products being proposed to top this new McItaly sandwich (Asiago, pancetta, for example). But let me ask this of the McDonald's brass: how do you guarantee the quality of the Italian products you will be using, setting aside your marketing slogans for a moment? I'm talking about the particular taste characteristics that have nothing to do with how a McDonald's hamburger actually tastes, especially how are you going to treat/store/ship these products so they resemble these typical Italian products as nature intended? To be blunt, how much did you pay the farmers and producers of these products? These Italian products are widely distributed nationally, to supermarkets and such, but what I'm getting at is whether the producers and farmers are getting reimbursed fairly for their labor or are getting the shaft, and not being paid enough. The smaller producers have historically been paid little and most of the time can't even recoup the cost of production, while the large multinationals (Barilla for example) are the only entities who are able to take advantage of this new channel of commerce that McDonald's and the Italian government have opened. They have the economies of scale, in other words. McItaly seems to be just another way to exploit farmers, diminish good taste and gastronomic tradition, and it could very well succeed if that is the actual goal.

What I'd like to see from McDonald's and Minister Zaia is some transparency. I don't want to hear about aggregate earnings, the flow of capital ending up in which person's pockets. What I want to know is when McDonald's buys the raw ingredients, these typical Italian ones, how much per kilo? That's a way we can find out if this partnership is in fact helping Italian agriculture and the producers and farmers.

Now, Minister Zaia, I have some bones to pick with you. You spoke of how grateful you are to McDonald's for partnering in this "great cultural operation", and that sales of the new McItaly sandwich will help move millions of tons of Italian produce and can earn 3.5 million euros per month. Where do those numbers come from? Don't you see the danger in marrying a multinational brand like McDonald's to the Made in Italy trademark? But let's take Zaia's goal seriously for a moment, the idea of "globalizing Italian flavor in order for new generations to have a gustatory memory of Italian products". Globalizing how? To globalize a flavor is to homogenize it, impoverish it, and for its uniqueness to vanish. Taste, like identity, has value when there exists differences, not standardization. In fact, we can suppose that an Italian national "flavor" doesn't exist at all, that there are hundreds and thousands of regional and local Italian flavors. It is this culinary and gustatory diversity that sustains Italy's agricultural richness. I'm afraid that Zaia's declaration that this McItaly partnership is a turning point for Italian agriculture is really a Trojan horse that will bring homogenization, standardization, and the identity of a single supernational brand known to everybody, that taste the same in Paris and Tokyo as in New York and Shanghai. What about a McHuevo, or a McGreek, a McLobster, when does it stop? Let's not forget the multinational pizza chains, who produce and sell a nominally Italian product that has nothing to do with Italy. The strategy with McDonald's, and these pizza chains, is to reach the youth demographic who frequent the shopping malls, but that is a strategy of impotence and striving for the lowest common denominator when the issue of nutrition and food choices is complex and doesn't call for a slick marketing campaign.

The fact is that McItaly will allow McDonald's to grossly underpay farmers and producers for their raw materials, because of the scale of its operations. Because it can get away with it. Zaia is running for governor of the Veneto region in the regional elections, so will we also see a McVenice?

- Carlo Petrini


Dwight said...

As I read the latest about this "marriage", I was also worried about whether the producer was getting paid fairly; eg. the parmigiano folks up north. Now they may want to unload years of pent up supply at low cost, i am not sure. The folks around here who raise beef usually sell directly to the neighbors, no middle man, and get a reasonable return on their investment. I can't imagine there is a group here in Italy big enough to supply McDonalds with beef. Then there is the ag minister of Italy giving favored quasi "DOP" status to McD's which I found out yesterday and that is certainly a crock and unfair to italian companies who aren't given the same label.

Adrian Reynolds said...

Supposedly McD's Italian beef comes from a producer near Cremona. Ewww.

Phil said...

Like I needed another reason to hate McDonald's and big businesses like McDonald's. What an absolute crime this is.

I hope the farmers turn their backs to this operation and continue to sell locally. Force McItaly to import their low-grade beef from the Midwest, and pay through the nose on shipping costs. That will help kill this plan.