Italian trade interest heats up in Florida kitchens
By Scott Blake
At a time when Italian commerce in South Florida is growing, Italian trade officials are trying to protect one of their key exports to the US: food.
Those officials are cautioning American consumers to be on the lookout for what they describe as inferior imitations of authentic Italian food products, from olive oil and pasta to wine.
"The most popular Italian products are widely imitated, sometimes illegally," said Marco Rocca, consul general of Italy in Miami.
When food shopping, officials say, consumers should look for Italian food items stamped as "PDO" and "PGI," which are product protection trademarks assigned by the European Union to signify authenticity. PDO stands for Protected Denomination of Origin and PGI stands for Protected Geographic Indication.
"We want to make it possible for the American people to understand the difference between something that looks Italian, but is not," said Gabriella Carlucci, mayor of the Italian city of Margherita di Savoia.
Mr. Rocca and Ms. Carlucci were joined by Gianluca Fontani, president of Italy America Chamber of Commerce Southeast, at a Friday news conference on the issue at the chamber's offices in downtown Miami.
Italian trade officials are working with importers in Greater Miami to increase the shipment of authentic Italian food to supermarkets and restaurants in South Florida and beyond.
Ms. Carlucci said the Miami area is a focal point for Italian food being exported to the US.
"We have many flights from Italy to Miami every day" bringing food, she said.
The news conference was part of the weeklong Italian-Apulian Food Film Festival, which ended Sunday. The festival included a series of food-tasting events and promotions with several Miami restaurants offering authentic Italian and Apulian recipes.
The event comes as Italian commerce in Greater Miami has been growing.
The total value of trade between Italy and the Miami area rose to $794.5 million during the seven-month period from January through July. That was a 12.5% increase over the same period last year, US Customs statistics show.
Mr. Rocca said some Italian businesses are turning to Miami as a more affordable alternative to New York City, where many Italian businesses traditionally have located.
Moreover, he said, some Italian companies are taking trade with the US a step further by opening production plants in Florida. In addition to the weak US dollar, Italian firms are being lured by lower production costs and fewer government-mandated labor costs.
Overseas "companies are looking abroad for business opportunities," Mr. Rocca said. "I've noticed increasing interest from Italian companies looking to do business in Florida."
Italian-owned aerospace firm Alenia, for example, is building a $200 million facility in the Jacksonville area, where work will include manufacturing for US military aircraft, Mr. Rocca noted.
"Italian companies are not just selling in Florida, but they're producing in Florida," he added. "That means creating jobs and investing real money in Florida."
Italian imports into South Florida, rather than exports into Italy, make up most of the trade between the two, said Miriann Guazzini, executive director of the Italy America Chamber of Commerce.
Exports to the US and other nations are all-important to Italy's economy, Ms. Guazzini said, making up about 70% of the Italian gross domestic product, which measures the value of all goods and services.
She said some leading Italian imports to the US are food and beverages; "fashion" items, including designer furniture; cars; and variety of products related to boating and yachts.
Meanwhile, the Italian government's ongoing financial crunch and domestic and overseas economic troubles present challenges for the chamber in promoting Italy-US commerce.
In recent years, the chamber's annual budget has decreased significantly. The chamber also lost a sister organization when the Italian Trade Commission closed its US offices recently due to the Italian government's fiscal crisis.
Currently, the chamber has about 180 member businesses spread over Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Italy. However, most of them — 140 to 150 — are in South Florida. The chamber's membership hasn't dropped despite the weak US economy, Ms. Guazzini said.
Members range from one-person entrepreneurial firms to multinationals such as the Mediterranean Shipping Co., one of the world's largest shipping firms.
The chamber formed in 1991 in response to the growth of South Florida's Italian community. In addition to the Miami office, the chamber has offices in Milan, Italy, and Charleston, SC.
"Some members are struggling through the recession — that's undeniable," Ms. Guazzini said. "But our membership has kept growing."
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