Italy’s own burger or culinary Trojan Horse?

The Italian government is proud to present … the McItaly?

In late January, Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia gave his blessings to McDonald’s latest offering.

“McItaly is a great goal that I had set and which has finally been realized,” he said at a McDonald’s restaurant located near Rome’s central Spanish Steps.

Wearing a white apron with the fast-food chain’s logo, the minister added that “a global network such as McDonald’s represents an important new segment of the market for our farmers. Our agriculture couldn’t let go of this opportunity, and the numbers are there to show it: 1,000 tons of Italian products used, for a total value of 3.5 million euro (almost $5 million).”

Touted as being made entirely of Italian ingredients, McDonald’s new burger might have escaped public scrutiny were it not for an international war of words launched by the British left-leaning newspaper The Guardian.

One of the paper’s most renowned food critics, Matthew Fort, wrote a fiery editorial blasting the McItaly, which is made with bread, ground beef, an artichoke spread, Asiago cheese and lettuce.

“An imprint of Italian flavours!” Fort wrote on January 28. “It is quite clear that Signor Zaia wouldn’t let such offensive products near his mouth unless there was a photo opportunity attached to it.”

Instead of ignoring the article, Zaia replied with a cryptic statement that turned the whole discussion into a political squabble.

“We are now more than used to the vulgarity of some media and even of a certain kind of politics,” said Zaia. “The left wing, with its loudspeakers, persist in baying at the moon, finding themselves further away from the real problems and fenced in their own sterile moral orthodoxy, which impairs any kind of development and hinders a clear vision of reality. With regret, we are forced to deliver bad news to this kind of left: Stalin is dead. And we can safely bet he never set foot in a McDonald’s.”

Italy's Minister of Agriculture promotes the McItaly


The minister’s attempt to land a few political punches backfired, as Fort said he was flattered by the attention his article had received, reiterating his point of view: “It’s a good knockabout,” he said, “but I think Zaia rather misses the point and that his attack on pinkoes, fellow travellers and old Stalinists is a distraction from the main issue: the failure of the government to look after Italy’s unique legacy of artisanal produce.”

With the McItaly campaign, the Italian government seems to be trying to introduce healthier foods to fast-food menus chosen by “thousands of European youngsters every day.”

But the government also wants to show that it has the farmers at heart: “Thousands of European farmers are facing the consequences of the worst economic crisis since ’29. McItaly will bring to the Italian farmers 3 million and 448,000 euros of additional income per month,” said Zaia. “It will also enable McDonald’s clients to eat a healthy burger with ‘Made in Italy’ products with Protected Designation of Origin and Protected Geographical Indication marks. We hope this will convince them to forget about junk food and choose a healthier and better quality food. We are sure it will work.”

Although the numbers brought up by Zaia sound great, they need to be looked at in perspective.

First of all: production.

Since McDonald’s is known for its limited set of standardized ingredients, farmers could be tempted to increase their production without much effort to improve quality.

Furthermore, McDonald’s does not provide seasonal menus, meaning that produce like tomatoes, lettuce or artichokes will either have to be grown in greenhouses or be frozen after each season, both of which undermine freshness. The biggest risk is that all of this will lead to a less diversified agricultural terrain. With an international corporation such as McDonald’s guaranteeing their sales, more and more farmers will start growing whatever McDonald’s asks them to grow.

As for the growing fast-food culture among younger generations, Zaia is rightly troubled by this trend, saying he hopes to “convince them to forget about junk food and choose a healthier and better quality food.”

If Zaia were seriously concerned with the eating habits of the young, he wouldn’t be promoting a greasy hamburger that will most probably be bought alongside an order of French fries and a soft drink. The McDonald’s policy is the same all over the world: If you get the menu, which most young people get with French fries and a soft drink, you pay less overall. So it’s hard to reconcile Zaia’s enthusiasm for the McItaly with his larger dietary concerns.

If he’s really interested in making fast food healthier, why would he turn to McDonald’s, whose deep-fried foods and calorie-rich menus are at odds with any dietician’s recommendations. Instead of promoting an American mega-corporation, which is doing fine on its own, the Italian government would be better off promoting the consumption of Italy’s own version of healthy fast-food: panini and pizze al taglio (pizza by the cut), for example, which are available at cafés across the boot.

And what does the emergence of the McItaly say about the country’s acclaimed food culture?

In point of fact, no other product is identical throughout the nation. Italy’s cuisine is a regional cuisine. Pizza is a Neapolitan tradition, cannoli are Sicilian and everyone eats pasta with different sauces based on where they live.

It’s ironic that Zaia has managed to use this hamburger — already an exotic import from another food culture — that bears an Anglicized name to give Italy its first national standardized food.

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