What’s in a name?

FOOD FOR THOUGHT - Chit U. Juan - The Philippine Star

I had the chance to visit a few places in Italy known for popular food items, namely Prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham) and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

For Parmigiano Reggiano to be called such, it has to come from one of five places only: Montova, Parma, Reggio, Modena and Bologna. The producers belong to a consortium whose purpose is to guard their products against “fakes” or other versions of their most revered cheese.

First, the milk must come from cows that graze in any of the five areas mentioned, and these cows eat grass found in the Emilia Romagna region, nurtured by a micro climate, with a humidity that is constant all year round.

Second, the milk is collected daily – twice a day – and each wheel of a 40-kilo Parmigiano Reggiano takes 500 liters of milk from these cows. One wheel! The wheel starts as a 60-kilo curd from the milk and over 12 months becomes the Parmigiano Reggiano we have come to know.

Third, an inspector comes three times a year to “knock” the wheel, now maturing in temperature-controlled rooms, and a “seal” is stamped if such cheese meets the standards. I was fortunate to see an actual inspection going on, and each wheel is carefully “knocked” so the inspector can listen to odd sounds that may mean a second- or third-grade cheese. And therefore, some may not make the grade.

The 70-80 percent good ones end up sealed and stamped, and can now carry the Parmigiano Reggiano label, while those which do not make it may still be sold – however, as ordinary cheese. Even with stamped cheese, the manufacturer’s name does not appear on the label, but he then becomes a number (e.g. E25) who can now carry the region’s brand of cheese.

This is a success in mono-branding a regional product. Can you imagine if we could do that for our kesong puti? Then we would have a consistent product that will live on for generations. And will assure the producer of a fair price for his or her labor.

I had a sad experience recently when my kesong puti (white carabao cheese) supplier gave me an undersized bar of cheese, which was saltier than usual. Another producer from Laguna would have a different way of wrapping the cheese product – same carabao’s milk but wrapped in the popular square brown natural outer wrap, except you only get two measly rounds of the white cheese inside.

If only they could agree on standards, we could have a thriving cheese industry just like Parmigiano. One can dream that this can still happen if we put our minds to it. And complete a system for such products like kesong puti.

And this is why I admire the marketing genius of the Italians in standardizing a few great products based on geographical indication, common practices and ensuring a sustainable agriculture industry.

The other product also known worldwide is Prosciutto di Parma or ham from Parma. In this case, only hind legs of special pigs that make the grade can qualify. The pigs are “stamped” from the time of birth and are carefully dressed by a butcher who also stamps his name or number on the legs that will soon be “riveted” with a metal button or seal at the Salumi factory.

At the factory, only sea salt is used to preserve the ham and it goes through 24 months of curing to be rightfully called prosciutto di parma. Inspectors from the consortium come to check on the hams, now hanging on ropes with date of “start of curing” and a thin pointed horse bone is used to check five areas on the leg of ham – around the bone, before the leg is deboned and the meat then put back together until it reaches 24 months of curing in controlled humidity and temperature inside huge refrigerators with temperatures progressively rising as the meat ages.

About 70 percent of the production is consumed locally in Italy while 30 percent are exported worldwide. At any one time, the plant we went to had 70,000 legs of ham curing and aging, and everyday, another batch comes in to start the two-year process.

These are just two of the products that Italian artisans and manufacturers take pride in. The rest are too many to mention, but all follow a certain guideline in production. Small manufacturers can participate along with big processors, as long as you follow the rules. And everybody gets to sell at the same premium price the market accepts.

This is a tried and tested process of the Italian regional artisans, whose size of business is not important, to get the same premium price for their labor and time. The secret sauce is the willingness of all to abide by standards and subject themselves to inspection, to make sure they make the grade.

In this region, size does not matter. Small or big, the premium price is carried by all.

The cheese factory I went to only had one “house” inspector as they only produce 18 wheels a day. Other manufacturers may be double or triple their size, needing more inspectors. But big or small, everyone follows the same rules. And the reward is a premium price carried by all.

This is an idea for our MSMEs. If all will agree to standards and avoid shortcuts, premium prices can be had by producers even without a brand name. The brands are regional brands like Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma, and not Giovanni’s cheese or Dante’s ham. Rather, it is a geographical indication and compliance with quality standards.

This is a good opportunity for OTOP – One Town, One Product – products to succeed at commanding premium prices, if and when they follow standards set by their consortium.

Small or big, premium price is possible. What a great equalizer. Now, Filipino MSMEs, are we ready to submit to such traceability standards?


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