Why I stopped buying European DOP products and began listening to farmers’ stories instead

This is the second article in a series of pieces decoding the European food quality labels, their modernization of production, and the damaging impact. Find the first piece here.

Working in the restaurant industry in Denver, CO, I was fully aware of the power and implied sophistication of the European IGP and DOP labels of quality of the many food products we used to craft menus.

From the prestigious Prosciutto di Parma to countless cheeses and salumi, olive oils, tomato products, pastas, and many other food products representing the tradition and terroir of the European countries we hoped to translate to the North American plate.

The class that changed me

When I arrived in Italy, two years ago, to study food culture and mobility at the University of Gastronomic Science of Pollenzo, I was excited to get a deeper understanding of these quality schemes we so revered in the US. I wondered how the EU had managed to enforce strict regulations while protecting tradition, the environment, and enhancing the lives of farmers. Soon I realized that is not what these labels do.

Professor Bairati began the European Union law and legislation class with an explanation of the creation of the Geographical Indications (GIs) in 1996, following the WTO’s 1994 agreement on the protection of intellectual property. He explained the intricacies of the DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin) and IGP (Protection of Geographical Indication — which I’ll discuss in the next article) labels of quality, given to food, wine, and other fermented beverages, to indicate their origin and production process. The idea with these labels of quality was to protect the European traditions and techniques developed through the centuries.

DOP — Denomination of Origin Protected

“DOP indicate that all ingredients and processes have to come from the designated area,” Bairati said.

So far, so good. The label protecting products like Stilton cheese, for example, indicated that the milk comes from the designated areas. If we stop here and simply swallow this information without questioning important factors like who decides the designated area? what are the animal husbandry practices? what are the cows [or other livestock] eating? or how is the cheese made in comparison with the centuries-old tradition it is claiming to protect? then we fail to discover the many trues behind this industrial system.

Bairati assigned us: The battle between DOP Stilton and the obscure Stichelton cheese. The perfect case to understand the problems hidden behind the DOP label.

The Case

Industry

We dug through EU quality labels books and the DOOR and other websites Bairati suggested to break down the Stilton application, which was entered by The Stilton Cheesemakers Association in 1996. It tells a romantic story of literary mention of the word Stilton in 1727 tied to the tri-county area allowed to make this style of cheese and call it Stilton. Yet, the rest of the document describes the cheese production as made with pasteurized milk, using selected industrial yeast strains, and at peak times of the year allowing producers to get milk from the whole of England and Wales — regions outside the designated area — a convenient way to ensure high production of an industrial cheese.

True Terroir

A man named Joe Schneider wanted to make a traditional style Stilton, using raw milk from the cows grazing the land around his shop in the designated area, using native yeast, and allowing the bacteria to turn the curds into the Stilton of the past, all to create a cheese that truly represents the land. He asked to be included in the DOP label and received a negative response from the EU and the Stilton cheese industry, as it doesn’t fit with the standardized modern production pumping hundreds of thousands of wheels a year. So, he decided to call his cheese Stichelton, after the original name of the village where the cheese was first made.

But Stilton is just one of the hundreds of DOP products following an industrial system, using traditional names tied to specific areas as an excuse to sell the idea of authenticity and tradition. A problematic situation as these products prestige keeps them from criticism and questioning, even though the tactics the associations and consortiums use to maximize production have a direct impact on the environment, small farmers and producers, and communities across the globe.

This is what got me interested in doing my thesis research [I’ll tackle this in a future article] on Italian cured meats production, the historical accounts, and the modern practices, and how I landed on GMOs.

GMOs from South America

Before moving to Italy, I used to believe GMOs were banned in Europe. My research showed me that’s not true. GMOs are allowed for import and used in ‘food procession, and as feed for animals.’ They are also allowed for cultivation, however, not many countries plant them because the practice doesn’t align with the greenwashing tactics the EU employs to continue selling itself as sustainable and traditional — and therefore superior.

For the European Union countries to produce and sell millions of their animal-based food products to a world of worshipers, they rely on GMO grain from countries like Brazil and Argentina, among other South-American countries, to feed their livestock. As stated on the commission’s website, “The [European] Union livestock sector is therefore highly dependent on third countries’ production for its vegetable proteins.” In fact, the EU is second to China in the import of GMOs from South America.

The Impact

In the past 24 years, GMO cultivation has increased exponentially in South American countries at the detriment of the land, the environment, and the well-being of native peoples. With the introduction and spread of these crops, the use of chemicals skyrocketed, deforestation has soared, and food sovereignty for many rural communities is at a growing risk.

Yet, the European Union has continued to support the imports of GMOs and GMO-fed animal protein, signing free-trade agreements with Mercosur while proclaiming a fight against them, and pushing for sustainability and environmentally friendly practices, in a sort of throw the stone and hide the hand act. In its Year Book 2020, the non-profit Trase says, “The EU remains the second-largest export market for forest-risk commodities after China… Although the EU has imported much less soy from Brazil than China, over the past decade its imports have consistently been associated with more deforestation risk per tonne.”

Realizing this connection made me question many of the so-called green initiatives from the EU, like the Green Deal, the Farm to Fork strategy, or the Biodiversity strategy. Plans and strategies making the EU look like it is actually doing its part to clean its act as the world’s third-largest polluter after China and the US, while it continues to contribute to the environmental and social destruction of South American forests and biomes, among other places in the world.

As I mentioned in my previous article, there are many small responsible farmers producers — like in the US and other places in the world — fighting against the system, whose stories are not told; but that is a small percentage in comparison to the large industry producing and exporting the European food traditions.

Looking at the data, I doubt DOP certification is actually protecting food traditions, the land, the environment, and the livelihood of farmers. These are ideals no longer upheld by industry giants feeding GMO grains from across the world to animals stuffed in CAFOs. How is that a taste of the land?

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Paula Thomas

Paula Thomas

Focused on the social, cultural, and environmental aspects of food in today’s context