Chinese tomato imports make Italian producers fear for EU food quality


Growing imports of Chinese tomatoes in Italy are making it impossible for local producers to maintain quality and could lead to the disappearance of the Italian tomato, said industry representatives, who are considering switching to more lucrative crops.

Despite its climate allowing for better cultivation of the loose 'salad' variety of tomatoes, Italy is China's largest customer for the type of fruit used to make tomato paste, which some producers are concerned is being processed in the country under the 'Made in Italy' label for re-export to be used in so-called Italian restaurants.

The EU is the world's largest producer of the tomatoes, a must in Italian cuisine, but it is also its biggest importer, with 100 million kilos of tomato paste having come from China over the past year, according to Italian daily La Stampa. This oversupply caused the price per tonne set by cooperatives to be reduced from 72 euros to just 35.  

"At this rate, it may be better to start cultivating wheat instead," said Gugliermo Garagnani, president of the Emilia Romagna region's industrial association, adding that "we could see the end of the Italian tomato by next summer".

China's emergence as a high-volume producer at relatively low cost can be explained by Italy using more expensive drip systems to water smaller plains. Since 2008, direct payments per hectare of land were introduced under the CAP, whereby a minimum size for receiving aid is required.

Increasing desertification of the Italy's 'golden triangle' tomato-growing region in Puglia coupled with heavy rains in other regions also contributed to the drop in producer's incomes by reducing yields by up to 30% compared to last year. 

Also facing wage competition from illegal migrant workers, the 40,000 Italians working in the tomato sector are the latest victims of the global food crisis, said Italy's agriculture minister, Giancarlo Galen, stressing that the country "has a duty to defend” the tomato production sector. A spokesperson for DG Agriculture at the European Commission, however, said the issue was "not a generalised problem around the EU" and "concerns only Italy."

With the Neapolitan pizza having being awarded the EU's Traditional Specialty Guarantee, Chinese competition is leading Italy's farmers, who produce 38% of the EU's tomato output, to call for Denomination of Controlled Origin labelling.

Meanwhile, populist politicians such as the Northern League's Mario Borghezio have easy ammunition to attack foreign produce in the peninsula.

"As small producers, we have a problem," said a spokesman for Isnardi S.P.A, a tomato producer in the Liguria region. "Chinese producers can use pesticides to make their production cheaper and are not subject to the same controls. A Controlled Denomination of Origin label could help," he added.

Indeed, the industry's troubles can be seen as contributing to protectionist sentiment in reaction to the economic downturn.

The European Parliament had earlier in the crisis argued that although Common Agricultural Policy funding had contributed to securing low consumer prices, "the EU lacks adequate measures to support producers' cooperatives to promote supply concentration".

As with the current ACTA [Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement] negotiations, the European Commission represents all 27 member states in WTO negotiations and tomato farmers will be wary of their produce entering free trade deals like those currently being negotiated with Mercosur, the regional integration organisation of South America.

The EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was established in 1958 to subsidise farmers, encouraging them to produce more to ensure stable supplies of affordable food. Once self-sufficiency for food was achieved in the 1980s, the policy began to lead to almost permanent surpluses of basic farm commodities, referred to as 'butter mountains' or 'wine lakes', which were bought up in the interest of food security.

Subsidies have been 'decoupled' from quantity of production since the CAP's Health Check in 2008, leaving farmers to produce what the market asks for and ensuring that environmental indicators are considered.

While countries like the UK and Denmark are in favour of reducing the overall CAP budget drastically and allocating more funding to rural development and the provision of public goods, others want to see the retention of a strong CAP in the current context of declining farming income and rising food prices, including France and Greece.

Agriculture was one of the sensitive issues bogging down the latest Doha round of talks at the WTO. The 27-nations of the European Union now want a proposed Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) to cover "geographical indicators," or food and alcoholic products drawn from a particular location, such Champagne or Cognac, both in France.

Subscribe to our newsletters