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Mafia gangs add to Parmesan cheese problems

By Chris Mercer , 05-Dec-2006

Bands of thieves are hijacking lorries containing Parmesan cheese in northern Italy and selling on the products for hard cash, adding to the woes of a struggling industry.

It sounds like the script to an eccentric film, but Parmigiano Reggiano cheese leaving Italy has become a genuine target for gangs with suspected links to the mafia.

A whole wheel of the hard cheese, more commonly known as Parmesan, is worth around £800, making one lorry load a relatively soft and lucrative target for thieves - but a costly loss for producers.

 

"It often happens near the border with France. When the driver stops, they gas him to knock him out and then take the cheese," Alison Crouch, who jointly runs the UK-based Parmesan Cheese Company, told DairyReporter.com.

 

She had a delivery of 20 wheels stolen this way earlier in the year, though other hijackings have reportedly seen more than 100 stolen.

 

"We'd only been in business for a year so we were thinking maybe this kind of thing happens quite regularly, but it's maybe only happened one other time so far."

 

Once taken, gangs are able to sell the cheese on as if legitimate suppliers. "Each producer has their own identification number on the cheese, but as long as you get rid of that, you would never know. It's quite easy," said Crouch.

 

The spate of hijackings has added to economic problems building up in front of Parmesan makers on the home market.

 

Producers were boosted when the EU granted the cheese Protected Designation of Origin status, meaning only those in a tight zone around Parma and Reggio Emilia in Italy could use the Parmigiano Reggiano name.

 

But that has not stopped a growing tide of copycat products.

 

Crouch, who visits producers regularly, said: "The industry is struggling at the moment. Italians are becoming more and more obsessed with supermarkets and they're getting a lot of imports from Eastern Europe of Parmesan-style cheese, which costs a quarter of the price."

 

Her company sources from two privately-owned producers, of which one is organic, but she said she regularly heard complaints about the plight of similar businesses.

 

"I was there [with one of our producers] quite recently. We stood on the hill where his dairy is looking around at different farmhouses that have closed down."

 

Numbers have been dwindling since the end of World War Two, when there were more than 2,000 producers huddled on the small pocket of northern Italy.

 

Now there are 492, down from more than 500 last year, according to the official Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium. Only a handful of truly independent businesses remain in this bloc too, after many pooled their resources in co-operatives to reduce costs and up profits.

 

Export markets are perhaps the biggest hope. There was 15,000 tonnes more Parmesan going abroad in 2005 than in 2001, Consortium figures show, with gains in both the developed world and emerging markets.

 

Part of the export challenge is about changing consumer attitudes in foreign countries, according to Crouch. "People in the UK have no idea about eating Parmesan as a table cheese. We are educating people on the different ways you can eat it."

 

But then, the borders are being watched.