MONIKA JUNG-MOUNIB, Agricultural and Food-Industry Writer Düsseldorf, Germany

Aceto Balsamico di Modena. You may not know the name, but if you’ve eaten at any Westernized restaurant around the world, you’ve most likely tasted it. The sweetish, golden-brown vinegar is turning up in artistic and sophisticated ways on salads, tuna and beef appetizers, desserts, strawberries, even cocktails.

Recently, however, Aceto Balsamico di Modena has become so popular that the Italian government has had to undertake efforts to protect its famous food product of the Po River plain in Italy from cheap imitators in France and Great Britain. Manufacturers up North tried to make the vinegar themselves and sell it as Vinaigre balsamique; producers on the other side of the Channel attempted the same and came up with balsamic vinegar.

But producers from the region of the Po River plain itself feel they are truly and solely capable of making the authentic brown vinegar because, in following EU Agriculture and Rural Development guidelines, they conduct all stages of production in the region and strictly adhere to the traditional recipe and craft of the Modena vinegar-making. ?

Complicated? Yes. So I will explain. Italian officials from Rome, together with agitated producers from the Po region, have become very engaged in this conflict. In fact, the defense of their brown vinegar turned into a question of national honor for which the Italians were ready to fight at the highest level of the European Union.

But let´s go back and make things clearer: The Aceto Balsamico di Modena vinegar was already carrying one of the most highly desired protected designations created by the EU for regional and traditional food products — the PGI seal, which gets awarded by the European Commission. There are three quality labels which were introduced into EU legislation in 1992 to address food fraud which, generally, remains almost impossible to detect:

  1. The blue-yellow PGI seal, expressing “protected geographical indication,” shows that a food product comes from a specific area, place or country and that it has a specific quality, goodwill, or characteristic. Furthermore, at least one of the stages of production, processing or preparation must have taken place in the area. So to receive the PGI, the entire product must be traditionally and at least partially manufactured within the specific region for it to acquire unique properties.
  2. Now, however, Aceto Balsamico di Modena has moved up the ladder having received the strictest EU label, the red-yellow PDO: “protected designation of origin.“ By using the name of an area, a specific place or even the name of a country for an agricultural product or a foodstuff, this label intends to express that the entire product has been traditionally and entirely manufactured (prepared, processed and produced, including natural and human factors) within the specific region and thus deserves unique status.
  3. The third designation is the yellow-blue TSG label for “traditional speciality guaranteed.” This aims to provide a protection regime for traditional food products of a specific character without certifying that the protected food product has a link to a specific geographical area. Therefore, it creates an exclusive right over the registered product name and can be only used by producers who conform to the registered production method and product specification. An example for the yellow-blue TSG label is Spanish Serrano ham, while Italian Parma-ham carries the red-yellow PDO label, and German Blackforest ham the blue-yellow PGI label.

The quality labels awarded by the EU for food products are highly desired by producers throughout Europe. They can be found on mineral waters, beers, sausages, and even on Lübecker Marzipan.

The unique status allows producers to sell their product at a higher price. However, they have to go through quite some trouble and money for it. First, a producer must form a protective association in its country with producers of its kind which then puts in a bid with the national patent office. Once the national patent office has proof of the correctness of the application on a national level, it can ask the European Commission to move forward with the application on a European level.

As one can imagine, this process demands a good deal of patience since it involves a lot of bureaucracy.

But it must be worth it, as the example from Italy shows: Around 90% of the 97 million litres of Aceto Balsamico di Modena that get produced are exported to 120 countries with a sales volume of one billion Euro. Whether consumers really manage to tell the difference between the labels while shopping remains questionable — because, let´s be honest, the labels can hardly be told apart. But maybe that is not the point as long as they make money flow in bigger numbers and manage to strengthen regional identity.

Finally, the Italians from the Po River plain, have put the extra sign “Tradizionale” on the round bottles of Aceto Balsamico di Modena — apparently feeling that repetition makes it even more true. At least consumers do know now that they can get that unique Balsamico.