Italy's Culinary Paradox

Riots are ugly events that expose even uglier truths. Reports of recent unrest by African immigrants in southern Italy have underscored the dirty little secret that, lo and behold, there’s racism in Italy. Lost in the condemnation of Italian xenophobia, however, is a less obvious but equally important discovery: Italy’s bucolic countryside — the heart of its pristine agrarian image — is sustained by foreign migrants living in, as one official put it, “subhuman conditions.” Those imported canned tomatoes that go into your classic tomato sauce obscure a world of hurt.

This is not what I want to hear when contemplating the land of slow food, ancient farm houses, rolling vineyards, and leisurely lunches over pasta, bruschetta, mozzarella, and fine wine. It’s not what I want to hear when savoring the near-spiritual identification between Italians and their legendary pastoral landscape, blessed with its inimitable air, soil, and produce. Something about “subhuman conditions” spoils the fun, dampening my enthusiasm to, as one Italian agritourismo outfit promotes, “see what the real Italy is like.”

Getting to know “the real Italy” — at least in terms of the country’s food and agriculture — means getting to know a migrant from Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, India, or, of course, Africa. Italy on the ground, Italy down in the dirt, is a multinational scrum, a place where an exploited foreigner is more likely to have picked your succulent olives than a perennially employed, well-compensated Italian. Only 5 percent of the Italian natives work in agriculture. Foreign migrants are 60 percent of the seasonal labor force.

Why is this? It’s often said that Italians won’t deign to pick their own produce. I’m not terribly swayed by such gross generalizations. But still, when an internal report by the retailer Coop Italia explains, “Italians do not accept jobs picking tomatoes for industrial use,” you have to wonder. Furthermore, Italy’s unemployed are likely to see their unemployment benefits reduced if they take on seasonal and low-paying agricultural work — which is to say they’re better off economically on the dole. The most pervasive answer, though, takes us back to Econ 101: foreign migrants are cheaper.

Unfortunately, Econ 101 often by-passes Ethics 101. All reports — not to mention the riots themselves — suggest that the abuse migrants endure is hellish. According to a 2005 study, 50 percent of the Africans working in Italy are illegal, 50 percent live without running water, 40 percent live in abandoned buildings, and 75 percent contract a chronic disease due their living conditions. They’re paid about 20 bucks a day for 12 hours of work. And so on.

Seeking insight from the ethical foodie perspective on this troubling culinary paradox, I turned to Slow Food International, the go-to Italian-based advocacy group that highlights fair, local, and fresh food. The organization’s stated mission is to counter “people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes, and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.” There’s not a word, however, about the riots. Instead, there are interesting pieces on a heritage livestock facility, how eating locally will curb obesity, and a video of Slow Food’s founder visiting the Sydney opera house.

Perhaps it’s unfair to expect an organization dedicated to eating well to dissect an incredibly complex and distressing labor arrangement. Food is fiction, after all, and there are many advantages to keep telling beautiful stories that brighten our day by enriching our palette. Plus, the moment we might start thinking about the culinary implications of a riot, things can become pretty tasteless.


And this is different from us... how?


I'd be surprised if migrants weren't 60% or more of the seasonal labor force in any well-developed country that has a significant agricultural component. Is it supposed to be surprising?


Mostly of your canned tomatoes there in the US anyway are produced in China at a little fraction of that "subhuman-labour-backed" cost (fakery in the food market is rampant, I doubt you get in the us the "real thing"), so you were being cheated anyway.


Having recently sat through a discussion of eating meat by ex-NYTimes restaurant critic Frank Bruni (BORN ROUND) and Jonathan Safran Foer (EATING ANIMALS,) I think this needs to be thrown into the stew pot as well...


I am Italian and I agree with everything, but an honest report should also note that this is no different from other countries.
I know this is no excuse, but where do illegal Mexican and Central or South American immigrants work? Or whi is employed in French vineyards?
Things are a lot complicated.


That's the point. It isn't different from us. This is a global problem--not just one that involves us fat, wasteful Americans. And it is a problem that everyone tries to shove under the rug because it is U-G-L-Y.


Cackalacka - you took the words out of my mouth.


The Haiti disaster reminded me of the seasonal
migrants that we Americans get every year.
It is actually cheaper to fly the Haitians into Miami,
and then bus them to the various farms to pick
apples. Then it is to hire local labor. These guys
must work for even less than the illegal Hispanics.


@Cackalacka I'd say this is different from America because of the pervasive stereotypes. I guess it's just a difference in expectations. Italian cuisine presents to many people a powerful image of a slow food movement where the food grown from the grown up to where it reaches the chefs and the final customer are all a "real" process, instead of the rote industrialization and often unethical infrastructure that is pretty common in a lot of countries, i.e. the more infamous fast food exploits of supersized America.

This is a bit of a shock, but maybe not altogether that surprising in the world of today.


It certainly isn't different from us. Conservative ideology tries to play it both ways; demonize the immigrants to keep them as an underclass, at the same time don't punish those who hire them. Get rid of the jobs, and the immigrants will not come.

Diana Strinati Baur

Well written. And correct.

Here in Piemonte, Italy's premier wine producing region, migrants comprise the overwhelming majority of the harvesting workforce. Conditions range from human to appalling, and pay from acceptable to virtually non-existent. The largest work pool in this region comes from Morocco, Albania, Bulgaria and Romania.

Small wineries that lack the technological acumen to sell products in the international marketplace could never pay legal Italian help. The larger wineries? Econ 101, as Mr. Mc Williams says.

The roots of Italian xenophobia are a matter of opinion. Prior to the social seismic event which culminated in the fall of Communism, Italy was not a country to which people immigrated . It was a country FROM which people immigrated, people like my grandparents, and the millions of others who landed in Buenos Aires, New York, Frankfurt. Italy has political strife, economic strife, and social strife. Italians have so much to cope with - stagnant wages against rising prices, a revolving door government, multiple families living under one roof (for practical reasons, not for romantic ones, as we Americans might want to believe), corruption.

The thought of Italians, stretched to their limits, opening their arms to embrace the floods from Eastern Europe and Africa, is pretty unrealistic. There is no immigrant culture here to learn from. Italians are the maters of improvisation, and they are having to figure this out as they go. I don't really think Italians start out hating foreign migration. They simply have absolutely no experience with it, no base for it, and no financial means to support it. That 's not a good place to start.

Does not always make for storybook endings that we can toast with a glass of Barolo and a plate of pasta with white truffles. Speriamo bene, we hope for good, as Italians always say.


J.P. Steele

You might be a bit premature in your dissing of Slow Food International......this is an issue that they must deal with. But....this is might take a while......


So reality does not match marketing? You can learn a lot by reading the NYT.


good call cackalacka- the solution is unions- ironically, italy is likely more pro-union than we are- either way, exposure is good to pressure the multinationals to be ethical and provide the workers that line their pockets with cash, a living wage


I second what Cackalacka said. It would be somewhat satisfying to see more of this exposed so that we can take a more holistic approach to creating fair food economics.

I've always wondered why urban farming remains so economically challenging in our country (often due to "higher and better uses" of the land), and factory farming reaps major government subsidies to remain profitable, when seemingly more "livable" countries with generally more expensive real estate can continue producing such bountiful crops. Not only do they continue to produce, but at a cost that still allows them to process, package, and ship the goods to us across the world at an affordable price. Surely government subsidies aren't the entire stabilizing force, especially with such a small number of the populace employed in the agriculture industry.....

We know too well in the U.S. that Latin American immigrants continue to comprise a majority of our field workers, and they are often undocumented and treated poorly. Why would it be any different in Europe, where they can attract an even larger labor pool of starving immigrants from unstable/unfavorable economies nearby?


Seeking Insight

If you were truly "seeking insight," from Slow Food, I think you would have done more than surf the website. Maybe pick-up the phone and call someone? Or even email?

Or, to be more honest about your motives, you could have written, "seeking to portray 'eco-foodies' as as a silly out-of-touch bunch, I took a cursory glance at the Slow Food web site and found the perfect opportunity!"


While we can wax on about the Italian employment situation and blame it on their somewhat lavish unemployment benefits, how can we turn a blind eye to our own migrant worker abuses? The reality is, with or without unemployment benefits, agricultural work is back-breaking work to make a product that is a commodity and sold at margin. If agribusinesses paid employees a living wage, the cost, and thus price of their product would rise significantly.

Are you willing to pay $4.99 per pound of California grapes when you can get Chilean grapes for $1.99 per pound? Or Italian tomatoes at $5 per can versus Central American tomatoes at $1 per can? And when American consumers are facing flat to negative wage increases and increased cost of living, can you really blame them for choosing cheaper food?

Either choice is unpalatable - unaffordable food or unacceptable labor practices here, in Italy, and in third world nations. How can you choose? No wonder we, and others, try to turn a blind eye.


Tom von Gremp

Hey cackalacka, if you can't tell the difference between Italy and US then you must have quit reading before you got to this section:

"According to a 2005 study, 50 percent of the Africans working in Italy are illegal, 50 percent live without running water, 40 percent live in abandoned buildings, and 75 percent contract a chronic disease due their living conditions. They're paid about 20 bucks a day for 12 hours of work. And so on."

No running water, $20 bucks a day and 75% contracting chronic diseasese seems to be an Italian/European kind of thing, eh?

I hope this helps.

Donna Tirella

Why do you think many poor, southern italians -- such as my grandparents -- made the trek by sea to come to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? To give up a life most people fantasize about? No, it was because they were abused by the government, landowners and "employers" who paid them nothing for hard labor, and the inferior living conditions they could afford. Even the tenements on the lower east side of Manhattan was an improvement. So is the information in your article supposed to surprise us? Perhaps, maybe, your non-Italian readers.


Linda Loomis

Who buys imported canned tomatoes?

Because you are an Easterner, I would recommend that you review the history of California's agricultural,--primarily southern and central--San Joaquin Valley, Cezar Chavez, and former "subhuman conditions" in these locales.

The history of the West Coast could be an eye-opener for you. Your latest version just seems like the same-old, same-old, but this time in an European setting.