When you think of Italian food, the first dishes that come to mind are probably pizza and pasta. I am here to tell you that’s not just your imagination. Those carb-saturated items make up the majority of a typical Italian’s diet (plus gelato, of course).
It took about five weeks for my body to adjust from my Pacific Northwest diet of seafood, granola and vegetables to one consisting almost entirely of these items. After four months living in Rome, I have decided that Italians love carbohydrates even more than Americans do.
This is interesting when one considers the fact that there are virtually zero obese Italians. Not only do they know how to make carbs unbelievably tasty, they know how to eat them right. Maybe it’s because they don’t serve butter with their bread, maybe it’s because their pasta portions are the size of something off an American kids’ menu and maybe it’s because they walk everywhere. Whatever the reason, Italians have food figured out.
When it comes to food safety they also fare quite well. Italy suffers far fewer foodborne illness outbreaks per capita than the United States. There have been only a handful in the past decade. Most have been at hotel and resort restaurants, and none have affected more than 60 people.
There are no food safety law firms in Italy for a reason. When I asked my neighborhood shopkeeper about this he suggested that the food he sells is safe because the EU became hyper-vigilant after the Mad Cow disease outbreak in 2001. He’s right; the EU has some very stringent laws protecting European consumers.
In addition to all this, I found one of the biggest differences between safety practices here and at home is found in they way Italian’s ‘do’ food. Their attitude toward its production, sale and consumption is much different than in America.
In Italy food is simplistic. It’s local, seasonal, small in quantity and easy to obtain. Most Italian refrigerators are the size American parents buy for their kids when they send them off to college. When it comes to shopping, Italians buy one to two items each day, rarely leaving a grocery store with more than one plastic bag. They buy only what they will need for the next 48 hours. They don’t do leftovers.
The products available are much different than in America. This is evidenced by the fact that there are entire websites for Americans abroad dedicated to helping them find Thanksgiving ingredients in Italy. It turns out that a search for processed food in Rome is a true challenge. The frozen food sections are the size of a single bathroom stall because Italian customers aren’t interested. Peanut butter, cake mix, marshmallows and Mac ‘n Cheese are offered only in the American section at certain international specialty food stores.
But the difference in options doesn’t end with processed foods. I have searched far and wide for an avocado in winter. It is nearly impossible to find asparagus in September. Most restaurants have two menus, one for each half of the year. You know what will be offered at your market by looking at your calendar.
When it comes to fresh produce, Italians are vigilant about safety. It is considered a grave indecency at a store or market to touch fresh fruit or vegetables without first donning sterilized plastic gloves. These are provided next to each and every produce section.
One of the products I find most interesting is milk. First, there are no gallon containers; the largest available size is 24 ounces. Secondly, it’s impossible to find milk that will not expire within three to four days. It just doesn’t exist. Initially this was both baffling and frustrating. However, I have come to understand it and dread going back to the invincible milk I drink at home. Italians’ milk doesn’t last as long because the producers don’t use the same preservatives Americans do.
I was able to talk with my local shopkeepers about the various differences. I felt comfortable attempting to communicate, even in my awful, broken Italian, because I saw the same elderly man nearly every other day and he was always friendly. Many American supermarkets invoke messages of “neighborhood” and “community” into their advertizing campaigns even though the majority of Americans buy their groceries in sterilized, cold, uniform megastores with 20-or-so checkout stands. By Italian standards, this is far from neighborly.
While Americans use the word “supermarket,” Italians just say “market.” Their stores are the size of gas stations. They keep things simple. Their food system doesn’t possess the mega-mentality that grips American food from farm to fork. They don’t have super-sized slaughterhouses, processing facilities, supermarkets or refrigerators. Even in Rome, the capital of Italy, the biggest store is equivalent to a two-story Texaco and has only two checkout lines.
Despite the benefits of this attitude, Italy does not have everything figured out. On more than one occasion I purchased a product that was already past its expiration date. American supermarkets are extra vigilant about removing these items in order to avoid making their customers sick. Italian stores are not as careful. When I asked my shopkeeper about this, he told me that if I buy an expired product and get sick it is my fault for being stupid. Needless to say, I now check the expiration dates on everything I buy in Italy.
My Italian classmates told me that Romans laugh at American students walking down the street laden with shopping bags. They say there are two ways to spot Americans –by their flip-flop sandals and their excessive grocery shopping. When I heard this I tried to phase out my sandals and adjust my shopping style. I obviously did not want to be that American. But it was a true challenge to change my attitude towards shopping. After a few weeks of guiltily throwing away expired items that didn’t even fit in my fridge, I experienced a mental shift. One day I realized that going to the store didn’t have to be an exhausting errand or chore. It didn’t have to be scheduled into my week. I didn’t even need to make a list. Stopping by for five minutes on my walk home to grab a few essentials could be woven into the fabric of my daily life. The size of my kitchen encouraged me to slim down my list and buy only what I knew I could use in the next 36 hours.
You may be thinking, “what does that have to do with food safety?” The truth is, there is no direct link between the number of shopping bags you fill and the safety of the food inside them. Instead, the shopping habits of Italian consumers are part of a general attitude emphasizing a simplified food system. This simplification is seen at all levels of the food system. It includes the sale, purchase and consumption of product.
As I said before, the debate returns to quality versus quantity. If Americans continue to demand milk that will last two weeks so that they don’t have to schedule a second journey to the supermarket, than the scientists of agribusiness will come up with a way to make our food last longer. If we demand that stores provide hundreds of different cereals, they will provide us with enormous superstores. If we demand that food be cheap, they will produce it cheaply. They will cut corners to please us, and this may continue to make us sick.