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Meloni looks to tighten Anglo-Italian ties with food and wine

During their visit to London last week, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Minister of Agriculture Francesco Lollobrigida outlined their plan to use the food and drink sector to further Italy’s “soft power”.

Image from the Italian Government.

Italian agribusiness, covering everything from the production of Parmigiano Reggiano and pasta to grappa and Greco di Tufo, is a key part of the ‘Made in Italy’ brand. Indeed, it’s a big business that is getting bigger: food and drink exports from the country to the UK leapt by 10% in the first two months of this year. Drinks make up almost a third (30%) of the Italian agribusiness imports into the UK.

At the opening of Friday’s Workshop on Italian Agribusiness, held in Claridge’s, Inigo Lambertini, the Ambassador of Italy to the United Kingdom, spoke of a meeting with King Charles III in March, and the monarch’s passion for Italian produce: “I was in the Palace, and His Majesty was promoting Italian food to me.”

Lambertini then gave a rallying call to the assembled crowd of 60 Italian food and drink entrepreneurs, including representatives from wine powerhouses such as Masi Agricola, Donnafugata and Marchesi Antinori: “We can continue to do more, to do better, to give more to a market that loves us and embraces us. This is our soft power; when it comes to food, no-one can beat us.”

The next speech, from supermarket supplier La Doria UK managing director Enzo Lamberti, pointed out that the UK consumers especially gravitate towards supermarket own label products, pointing out that 90% of pasta and 70% of tinned tomatoes sold in the UK are supermarket-branded.

Though not cited in Lamberti’s speech, there is a similar phenomenon exhibited in off-trade wine sales. According to data published by retail insight leader IRI, last year, supermarket own label Prosecco sales constituted 12% of the total wine market value. Sales of the most popular Prosecco brand, Plaza Centro, made up only 6%.

It was then the turn of Lollobrigida, Minister of Agriculture, Food Sovereignty and Forests, and a member of Meloni’s right-wing populist Fratelli d’Italia party, to deliver the keynote speech of the morning workshop.

While Brexit has undeniably presented problems for Italian wine producers attempting to crack the UK market, as db discovered at last year’s Vitigno Italia preview, Lollobrigida said that he “respects” the result of the 2016 referendum that led to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

Just as the certainty of the UK’s place in the EU is gone, Lollobrigida then observed that the Covid-19 Pandemic and Russian invasion of Ukraine had shown that “certainties” about supply chains were also “wrong”.

However, he said that the Italian agribusiness sector was in a “healthy” condition, citing the success of the 55th edition of Vinitaly that took place in Verona in April. Though he did still express caution about the future of Italy’s culinary reputation: “Fewer and fewer grandmothers teach their grandchildren how to cook, or recognise good food.”

But, despite some issues of contention, Lollobrigida ended on a triumphant note addressed to British buyers: “You can ask, and Italy will provide what you need.”

Lollobrigida speaking at the morning workshop.

After this, there then followed a small press conference with Lollobrigida in Soho Italian restaurant Macellaio RC.

When asked by the drinks business about what sets Italian wines apart from those from the rest of the world, Lollobrigida said: “Italian wines are the best in the world because they are the fruit of great research. Above all, there is a great range of so many types of wine…Just go to an event like Vinitaly and discover a paradise of quality products that bring well-being.”

db then posed Lollobrigida the question of whether he had a particular favourite Italian wine, to which the Minister diplomatically replied: “Yes, but if I say it I will offend the others.”

In the lengthy queue of visiting Italian agribusiness figures eager to attend the afternoon reception at the Italian Embassy in Grosvenor Square, there was a great deal of excitement at the prospect of Meloni’s visit.

Lollobrigida spoke first at the event, reiterating the message he had shared in the morning.

After that, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, who accompanied Meloni on her visit, highlighted the historic connections between the UK and Italy and quipped that he enjoys Italian food and drink “on quite a regular basis”.

It was then the turn of the visiting Italian leader to speak. Making her speech in English, Meloni said: “This reception celebrates the strong friendship between Italy and the United Kingdom. Our nations are traditionally linked by a broad convergence of interests and values, strong economic and industrial partnership, and close cultural and civil society relations, fostered also by the existence of a large resident community.”

“The work done today by our respective companies in the agri-food sector, which is traditionally one of the strong points of our bilateral relationship, has been emphatic. Yet both nations are aware that there is an untapped potential that we can still exploit, considering the extraordinary work carried out by our trade associations that have supported the Ministry of Agriculture in today’s meeting.”

“Italian agri-food is high quality, that my government is strongly protecting and promoting through the international markets. Quality production and values are identified in the traditions, methods and territories of our nation. All elements that make ‘Made in Italy’ agri-food products a strategic asset of our economy and a key element of our know-how at international level.”

Meloni, who was elected to office on a national-conservative platform in October last year, then explained: “…we have already introduced several significant measures in these first six months of government: from the contribution for young farmers to the fund for technological innovation, from the extension of vouchers to the support for new agricultural entrepreneurs. Not to mention the work we are doing to strengthen the fight against counterfeiting and imitation of Italian agri-food products, which cost billions of Euros in lost sales every year and implies a lower product quality. This is a common battle for both Italian producers and consumers all over the world. There is also a need to tackle structural and long-term challenges, including climate change and investing in innovation. Tradition and innovation have always been the key ingredients of the Italian agri-food know how.”

“The Italian agri-food system is strong and healthy,” she continued, “exceeding €60 billion in exports in 2022, but we can achieve even higher goals, starting from the relationship between Italy and the United Kingdom. Agribusiness is a pillar of the Italian system. A strong ‘teamwork’ between the public and private sector, between institutions, trade associations, entrepreneurs and workers of the area, in order to be even stronger and more ambitious.”

“In a week’s time, the coronation of Charles III will be celebrated. We know how much he appreciates the Italian landscape: a landscape also made by generations of farmers. A heritage we are proud of.”

The visiting premier then concluded her speech with five words that she believes sum up Italy: “Economy, culture, beauty, taste, health”.

Before she left the embassy, Meloni was also presented with a bottle of Belledaisy Chianti Riserva by a representative of the brand.

The wine presented to Meloni (this particular bottle was given to Lambertini).

While the food-focus of the occasion may not seem hugely significant beyond the agribusiness sector, it is the thin end of a Parmigiano wedge that is indicative of Italy’s growing international trade ambitions. The seemingly unslakable UK thirst for Italian products, if the popularity of the Aperol Spritz bar at the embassy do is anything to go by, could well be instrumental in this.

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