ROME, Italy — Italians have always had a soft spot for locally grown and homemade products. Now Italy’s government has allied itself with the most notorious American fast food chain — McDonalds — to source food locally.
When he launched the "McItaly menu" in January, former agriculture minister Luca Zaia hungrily bit into a hamburger with “100 percent made-in-Italy meat.” The new menu items feature Italian products such as extra virgin olive oil, parmesan cheese, bresaola (low-fat dry beef sliced thinly and eaten cold), ham, artichokes, onions and pancetta.
According to McDonalds Italy, the McItaly experiment exceeded expectations: More than 3 million “100 percent Italian” hamburgers were sold in the first two months. The menu was offered at the chain's 392 locations around Italy, which serve 600,000 clients a day. Since January, McDonalds said, about 100,000 clients per day have bought a McItaly hamburger. Seventy-eight percent of respondents to a survey taken by the company praised the initiative.
The company used the campaign to enhance its image among locavores in Italy and beyond. McItaly ads, featuring an image of Italy stamped into ground beef, aired not just in Italy, but in Great Britain, Spain, France, Switzerland and Germany.
Of course, not everyone is happy about the collaboration between the government and McDonalds. Slow Food President Carlo Petrini, while willing "to give 'McItaly' a chance," suggested in the newspaper La Reppublica that Zaia "be a bit more cautious before embracing a cause in which he is entrusting an important brand like Italy to a multinational which has turned marketing into its creed." He further asked McDonalds to reveal what it paid for the raw materials that went into making the McItaly products.
Those who most benefitted were the 15,000 Italian cattle breeders based in the north of the country, near the town of Modena, who supplied the beef, McDonalds said. Other suppliers include cheese- and bun-makers from the province of Asiago and four leading agricultural consortiums, such as the parmesan industry.
The McItaly menu offers various types of locally grown fruits and salads as well. The latest trend at McDonalds' Italy restaurants is the so-called kiwi-stick, fruit that can be eaten on-the-go as if it were an ice cream cone or lollipop. The national cultivation of kiwis is concentrated in the Agro-Pontino countryside south of Rome, a former malarial area cleared and recovered for agricultural use in the 1920s by Benito Mussolini. The “kiwi-stick” was launched in March and in just two months more than 330,000 pieces were sold, according to the company.
The kiwis are part of McDonalds' “Frescallegre” (happyfruits) packages, which in the winter include fruits such as apples from the northern Piedmont and peaches from Emilia Romagna. So it seems the company's strategy checks two boxes its American outlets don't — local, and seasonal. This summer Sicilian oranges, the most flavorful in the country, will be used to make ice cream.
The interest of the political forces behind the McItaly collaboration are clear. Italian farmers and breeders are one of the most powerful political lobbies in the country. They are nationally represented by four major associations that have great influence over the government’s decisions. In the past, Italy’s farmers have led fierce battles against the cultivation of genetically modified organisms and the European Union’s milk quotas scheme.
Zaia, who said the campaign would “globally promote the Italian style, diet, flavors and controlled-origin products by turning them into symbols of Made-in-Italy,” is himself a farmer. He is also a member of the nationalist Northern League Party, an ally of premier Silvio Berlusconi, whose party supports boosting national identity, local traditions, products and businesses. Zaia's electoral base includes farmers, agricultural consortiums and cattle breeders.
At the McDonalds Italy headquarters in Milan, strategists and media gurus are preparing for the September launch of another 100 percent "made-in-Italy" menu. But their lips are sealed. A press officer said she “can’t release any kind of information right now because we don’t want to ruin the media effect this new campaign is expected to have.”
The company’s goals are indeed ambitious. When the McItaly menu was unveiled, Roberto Masi, CEO of McDonalds Italy, said the company planned to export several Italian products all over the world. Parmesan salads, for example, have already reached McDonald’s restaurants in France and Switzerland. Sicilian orange ice-cream and Italian “kiwi-sticks” will soon be launched globally as well.