Italian durum exports hit by labelling rule

Exports to our best long-term customer have plunged 
because of a new labelling rule and safety accusations

Farm group Coldiretti, which says it represents 1.6 million Italian farmers, attracts a lot of media attention with its demonstrations, including this one in Rome last summer. The message on the sign in a photo from an Italian TV station’s coverage of the demonstration translates as ‘We do not want the Canadian wheat that has glyphosate.’
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Canada needs to fight back to hold on to one of its biggest durum markets, says a top official with the association representing Italian pasta makers.

Luigi Cristiano Laurenza. photo: Supplied

“We know that Canadian durum wheat is excellent for pasta production, but unfortunately some Italian farm organizations have made a very tough campaign against it over the past years,” said Luigi Cristiano Laurenza, pasta secretary at the Italian Association of Confectionery and Pasta Industries.

“They have convinced our consumers here that Canadian durum wheat is not a safe product to consume because of the presence of glyphosate. Unfortunately, our pasta makers are buying less durum wheat from Canada as a result.”

Since February, all dried pasta sold in Italy must have a label stating the origin of its durum wheat. The country-of-origin labelling regulation followed protests by Italian durum growers in a campaign organized by Italy’s biggest farm organization Coldiretti.

The influential farm group, known for its mass demonstrations with farmers and supporters decked out in its trademark yellow and green, says labelling is needed because Canadian farmers make “intensive use of glyphosate… in the pre-harvest phase.”

But there are never more than minute traces of the herbicide — even when it is used as a desiccant — in any Canadian grain exports, said a research scientist with the Canadian Grain Commission’s Grain Research Laboratory. The same is also true of mycotoxins such as deoxynivalenol and Ochratoxin A, which Coldiretti also claims ‘contaminate’ Canadian durum, said Sheryl Tittlemier

“Looking at our exports, our cargo monitoring program and the data that’s produced, the results show that Canadian grain is at least meeting the established maximum limits of importing countries,” said Tittlemier.

And the testing is rigorous, she said.

“The methods we use — from sampling, to sample processing, to the actual analysis and getting the numbers — the whole method is validated,” said Tittlemier. “We run a lot of quality control to make sure our method is working properly.”

Italian studies conducted on pasta made with Canadian durum also show that glyphosate traces are significantly lower than the minimum levels established by the EU, Laurenza said in an interview from Rome

“All of the studies conducted in Italy on pasta show that the traces of glyphosate were much lower than the minimum levels established by the EU. They were absolutely legal,” he said. Glyphosate is used as an excuse for a non-tariff measure aimed at protecting Italian durum growers, he said.

Sales slump

The labelling requirement is hurting Canadian durum sales to Italy, said the president of Cereals Canada.

“This policy requires significant segregation that will increase costs for processors using Canadian durum wheat, and companies will move to reduce those costs,” said Cam Dahl. “This means they will try to cut down on various sources, and there will likely be pressure to increase the percentage of Italian durum in pasta as well.”

The latest export numbers bear that out. Italy has long been a top buyer of Canadian durum, often accounting for 20 per cent or more of exports. But not this crop year.

“This year there has already been a noticeable decrease in imports of Canadian durum,” said Laurenza.

Canadian durum has long been prized by Italian pasta makers but exports have plunged this year because of a new grown-in-Italy labelling rule and misleading claims by the country’s biggest farm group. photo: Italian Association of Confectionery and Pasta Industries

By the end of February, 283,300 tonnes of durum had been shipped to Italy, according to Canadian Grain Commission export data. That’s barely half of the 522,000 tonnes exported to Italy during the same period in the last crop year. (Meanwhile, Morocco and Algeria, which have emerged as major customers in recent years, purchased 527,000 and 541,000 tonnes respectively as of the end of February.)

Laurenza is urging the Canadian grain industry to campaign more aggressively and explain that Canadian durum wheat is safe when it comes to its pesticide levels, and respects science-based regulations.

“We know this is the case,” he said. “But we have to convince consumers of this.”

Producers here need to play a central role in that effort, he added.

“Canadian farmers must show that they’re using good and safe agronomic practices,” Laurenza said. “They’ve told me that they have very high production standards, and I’ve asked them, ‘Why don’t you tell people what you are doing in your fields? Why don’t you tell your story? Why don’t you show all of this off?’”

Next steps

Canadian farmers and grain industry officials have twice travelled to Italy in recent years (in December 2016 and last May) as part of their New Crop Missions. These trade trips help drive dialogue and increase awareness of Canada’s quality standards, but more needs to be done, said Laurenza.

“We need a massive campaign explaining that Canadian durum wheat is absolutely safe from pesticide levels, and respects the regulated levels,” he said.

Industry stakeholders, including Cereals Canada, are now calling on government officials to fight for the end of the non-tariff labelling barrier through existing dispute resolution processes, either those of the World Trade Organization or CETA (the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement).

The situation has also been aggravated by bumper crops of durum in major growing regions last year, said Dahl.

“Italy had a large crop, and it’s able to source from France and other places as well,” he said. “It’s difficult to tell what will happen when these conditions change.”

Italy usually needs to import 30 to 40 per cent of its durum, said Laurenza.

“There are pasta makers who have contracts in place with Canadian farmers, but if we want to see more of this, we must push in the direction that educates people about how safe it is,” he added.

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