Setting a Slow Table

Date: 6 Nov 2000 | posted in: agriculture | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2000 issue of our New Rules Journal.

If you’ve always wanted to be an activist but stayed away because of the bad food and long hours, there’s good news. A group called Slow Food has taken up the cause of local cuisine and is defending it against everything from hyper-hygienic policies to the homogenizing influence of mass distribution. Their organizing strategy: sit down and enjoy a delicious, leisurely meal.

It began as a tongue-in-cheek response to the arrival of Italy’s first American fast-food outlet in 1986. Enraged when McDonald’s opened in Rome’s historic Piazza di Spagna, journalist Carlo Petrini – after a long, slow lunch with friends in his hometown of Bra – launched Slow Food.

Three leisurely years later, representatives of twenty countries met in Paris to feast and draft a manifesto. “We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods . . . In the name of productivity, Fast Life has changed our way of being and threatens our environment and our landscapes,” they wrote. “Our defense should begin at the table with Slow Food. Let us rediscover the flavors and savors of regional cooking . . .”

Slow Food has since grown to include more than 65,000 members organized through 400 local convivia (chapters) in 40 countries. Slow Food’s deepest roots are in Europe, where villages just a few miles apart still employ distinct, centuries-old methods for making cheeses and wines. Currently, however, the movement’s strongest growth is in the United States. The number of local convivia has expanded from five to forty in just two years. Interest has gone hand in hand with the rise of microbreweries, artisan bread-makers, organic foods, and farmers markets.

Slow Food’s symbol is the snail, a tiny creature that embodies a world of wisdom: reject the frenzy of modern living in favor of a slow, contemplative life rooted in community and firmly connected to the earth and its fruits. The movement’s core mission is to resurrect and safeguard small-scale food production and local culture from the forces of industrial standardization and global uniformity. The ability to savor one’s own culinary heritage is more than a privilege, according to Slow Food: it is a basic human right.

Why foods become extinct

Browsing through Slow Food’s Ark of Taste – a Noah’s Ark-inspired inventory of embattled local foods that the movement is working to save – gives one a sense of just how diverse local foods and traditions are, as well as the range of forces arrayed against them.

Some of the Ark’s foods, like California’s Sun Crest Peach, said to be one of the last truly juicy peaches, border on extinction because they are too fragile to survive the demands of mass distribution and retailing. Agribusiness and chain supermarkets have narrowed our choices to a few varieties and eliminated the local networks that once made local varieties viable.

Other foods fail to meet the efficiency demands of modern production. In Italy, an endangered breed of cow, which reputedly produces the world’s finest Parmesan cheese, has become rare, because it yields less than one-quarter of the milk produced by other breeds.

Still other culinary traditions have been lost because the small, local producers have been unable to survive competition from large regional or national operations. Creole cream cheese, a New Orleans original, has largely disappeared as local dairies give way to regional processors that mass-produce standardized cheeses.

Finally, many local food producers are struggling under food safety regulations that are designed for large industrial processors. Vermont cloth-wrapped farmhouse cheddar, for instance, is aged on wooden shelves in special rooms or caves, a process recently found to violate U.S. Department of Agriculture rules. The agency says cheese must age surrounded by smooth, impervious metal or plastic. The state’s artisan cheesemakers say retrofitting their operations is not only prohibitively expensive, but will alter the subtle flavors that make the cheese unique.

Saving endangered foods

The Slow Food movement has developed a multipronged approach to overcoming these forces. It begins with education. Local convivia organize slow food dinners to reintroduce local foods and cooking techniques and to spread the philosophy of a good life rooted in the slow pleasures of place and community. The local activities culminate once a year in an international gastronomic extravaganza known as Salone del Gusto. This year’s event is expected to draw more than 200,000 people to Turin, Italy, to sample thousands of artisan foods from around the world.

Slow Food also intervenes directly to save endangered foods by providing funding for pilot companies, supplying equipment, conducting marketing studies and trying to reestablish local systems of distribution and retailing. Local convivia organize and maintain farmers’ markets and support food stores and coops that carry local foods. They encourage restaurants to serve homegrown foods and revive traditional recipes.

SlowFood is also a political movement, organized to fight what are perhaps the most serious threats facing local foods: laws that favor large-scale production and make it nearly impossible for many artisan producers to continue their craft.

Hyper-hygienic standards in Europe

In Europe, the main point of contention centers on what Slow Food refers to as hyper-hygienic regulations originating with the European Union. Over the last few years, the E.U. has been creating uniform food safety standards, which each member country is required to implement through national laws.

While many of these rules are reasonable, others have made traditional techniques illegal. In Orvieto, Italy, the last surviving producer of cenerino, a local cheese, must break the law to continue his craft. Cenerino is made from sheep’s milk taken during March, April or May, when the fat content is highest. It is covered with oak ash, wrapped in walnut leaves and aged for two years. The process fails meet E.U. standards. Other foods threatened with the chopping block include fossa cheese aged in underground pits, Tuscan pig lard made in marble vats, pasta made with raw eggs and dried in the open air, and even wood-fired pizza, which the E.U. fears may contain small amounts of carcinogenic ash.

Polls indicate growing opposition to the E.U. In September, the Danes voted against adopting the Euro, the E.U.’s currency. Nothing, however, has inspired popular revolt more than attempts to interfere with food. The E.U.’s food safety rules have been the subject of front-page headlines, especially in Italy and France, where food is both a national pastime and the very essence of what makes one Italian or French. The rules have caused dramatic increases in the sales of certain endangered foods and inspired many an illicit dinner party.

In response to the public outcry, the Italian agriculture ministry published a list of more than 2,000 traditional foods in August. The ministry has encouraged producers of these foods to apply for an exemption from the E.U. rules. Slow Food was instrumental in convincing the E.U. to allow such exemptions, under which products may be sold in their home countries but not shipped elsewhere in Europe. Some Italian policymakers, noting that the process for obtaining a waiver can be complex and arduous, have called for broader protections that exempt all small producers and recognize traditional foods as culture treasures, much like the Sistine Chapel. The French government is pursuing a similar strategy.

Unfair costs

Aless direct but more insidious threat to local foods are E.U. rules that impose greater costs on small producers, processors and retailers. Meeting the new standards generally requires upgrades in equipment and facilities that are well within the reach of large companies, but far too expensive for small ones.

In Britain, rules implemented this year in response to E.U. standards have forced more than 20 percent of the nation’s small slaughterhouses to close. The rules require official veterinary surgeons to be on hand throughout the slaughter. While other countries have publicly financed these costs or imposed a set fee per animal, Britain has required that each slaughterhouse pay its actual costs. Large slaughterhouses spread these costs over more animals, paying about £1.50 per head, according to the Small Abattoirs Federation – compared to £44.50 at small slaughterhouses.

Small and mid-sized abattoirs currently process about half of Britain’s meat. They form an essential link in the supply chain and are necessary to the survival of small livestock farmers, as well as independent butchers, farmers’ markets and small retailers. Large slaughterhouses are no substitute. They are often located far from the remote areas where small farmers raise livestock and generally refuse to handle small orders and specialty animals like goats and venison.

The new E.U. food standards have been especially hard to stomach in Italy, where four out five firms have fewer than 15 employees. To conform to the standards, retail food shops have had to spend thousands of dollars remodeling and buying new refrigerators and other equipment. Tens of thousands of these shops have closed their doors. Restaurants are struggling as well to afford new ovens and high-tech refrigerators with computerized temperature monitoring. Paperwork has greatly increased because each person in the supply chain is required to document the source of every ingredient and to track cooking and storage temperatures.

In France, street vendors and farmers markets are under threat. New rules imposed in May require refrigeration of most foods, including fish, raw vegetables, pastries and cheese. Markets must install toilets, running water and electricity. At the moment, many vendors, unable to afford the cost, are defying the rules and waiting to see if inspectors will close them down.

Hyper-hygienic standards in the U.S.

In the United States, hyper-hygienic standards are also a significant issue. Chief among Slow Food’s concerns are attempts to regulate or ban raw milk cheeses. Already, the sale of raw milk cheese aged for less than two months is prohibited by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration(FDA). The agency is currently considering a ban on all raw milk cheese, including such favorites as Vermont cheddar, Swiss Gruyere and French Roquefort.

Most artisan cheese-makers cannot afford pasteurization equipment. Even if they could, pasteurization would likely mean their demise because it would eliminate much of what differentiates artisan cheeses from mass-produced cheeses. According to gourmets, raw milk cheeses are more flavorful and often superior to those made with pasteurized milk. As a result, they command a higher price, which enables small producers to survive.

Annie Bonney of the Cheese of Choice Coalition says consumers understand that raw milk cheese is slightly more likely to contain harmful bacteria than pasteurized cheese. They should be left to make the call themselves, as they do when ordering a hamburger rare or well-done. Moreover, the FDA’s concerns, she says, are based on an inconclusive study of E. coli in aged cheese. Strangely, the study examined cheese made from pasteurized milk, not raw milk.

The FDA has also considered requiring pasteurization of apple cider and fruit juice. The proposal first surfaced in 1996, when an outbreak of cider-induced food poisoning killed one person and sickened 66 others. All large cider producers pasteurize; few small ones do. The equipment costs about $15,000 to $25,000, a price tag too high for nearly all of New England’s three hundred cider producers, according to Richard Uncles of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture.

Many states have asked the FDA to leave cider regulation in their hands. New Hampshire, for example, adopted a number of new rules following the 1996 outbreak, both to correct potential sources of contamination and to ward off further intervention by the FDA. Uncles contends that simpler, less expensive regulations, such as barring animals from grazing in orchards and establishing more stringent washing and transportation procedures, can ensure a reasonably safe product. The 1996 outbreak was caused when a farmer shipped apples in a truck previously used to haul manure.

New Hampshire also mandates that cider be labeled either pasteurized or unpasteurized. Under FDA rules, unpasteurized cider that crosses state lines must carry a warning label. The warning has caused sales to drop sharply in some areas. Elsewhere the controversy has re-ignited interest in unpasteurized cider, which, like raw milk, is more flavorful than pasteurized cider.

These conflicts raise two important questions about food safety regulation. First, what level of government should be responsible for food safety? Distant international bodies, like the European Union, are ill-equipped to draft standards that respect local traditions and take into account the needs of small producers. The E.U.’s very mission is to harmonize standards in order to facilitate trade and enable large companies to more easily ship products throughout Europe.

The second has to do with the priorities of food safety regulation. Members of Slow Food point out that recent food scares in Europe and consumer concerns in general all originate with industrial food production: mad cow disease, chickens contaminated with dioxin, bovine growth hormone, antibiotics in meat and dairy and genetically modified foods. Eating moldy cheese aged in an underground pit does indeed pose certain dangers, but in the larger scheme of things, should this be our biggest concern? In a letter to McDonald’s last year, the FDA confirmed that four tested pathogens will not grow on a slice of Kraft processed cheese left unrefrigerated for 24 hours. This seems to beg the question. If the bugs won’t eat it, should we?

Slow Cities

As Slow Food challenges international and national regulations, it also launched an initiative this year to implement new policies at the local level that address more than just food. Together with Italy’s municipal alliance, Slow Food created Slow Cities, a network of certified cities that have agreed to adopt policies that protect the community’s culture and way of life.

Many of the Slow Cities policies focus on protecting the local environment. Slow Food has long described itself as an eco-gastronomic movement, recognizing that artisan foods derive their singular flavors from the soil, water and climate of the place where they were created. Slow Cities prohibit local production of genetically modified foods and support organic agriculture. They encourage recycling, protect green space, plant trees, build bicycle and pedestrian paths and limit car traffic. Audio and visual pollution is also addressed: no neon lighting, no car alarms and no posters.

Slow Cities agree to support local food by sponsoring farmers’ markets, promoting homegrown culinary traditions through festivals and other events and encouraging restaurants and shops to carry local products. They urge businesses and schools to adjust their hours to allow for a long midday meal with friends and family.

The network of Slow Cities has grown from the roots of the original Slow Food movement. It now includes about 30 Italian towns, but hopes to spread to cities around the world. Each Slow City displays the movement’s logo: a snail crawling past two buildings, one ancient, the other modern.

Stacy Mitchell is a researcher with The New Rules Project of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
© 2000 Institute for Local Self-Reliance

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Stacy Mitchell

Stacy Mitchell is co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and directs its Independent Business Initiative, which produces research and designs policy to counter concentrated corporate power and strengthen local economies.