In Italy McDonald’s has launched and relaunched the ridiculously-named McItaly burger off and on since 2010, and the outrage throughout and beyond Italy has been swift, loud and almost universally condemning. The sight of one of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s hacks, Minister of Agriculture Luca Zala, chomping into an alleged hamburger made out of local Italian ingredients had the slow food crowd up in arms. Oh mio dio, yet another American invasion of the continent was spreading Yankee poison! First France fell to Euro Disney, and now the all beef patty and fast food are creeping across The Boot, nudging out puttanesca and pignolis.
Adding insult to injury, McDonald’s introduced a couple new McItaly burgers last fall that were actually a hit. Like the American McRib, the sandwiches developed a cult following, were on the market for a few weeks, and then were pulled off menus. Unlike the McRib, these options actually boasted real and edible ingredients, including ricotta cheese and spinach. Several ingredients were certified DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta), the Italian stamp of approval on genuinely local, and dope, food. Depending on one’s point of view, McDonald’s is either sabotaging local cuisine or is genuinely boosting Italian agriculture by sourcing more local ingredients for the country’s 400-plus restaurants.
The truth is somewhere in between. The thought of eating at a McDonald’s does sound like heresy in the country of Almalfi lemons and pancetta. While the company does attempt to placate local tastes from the Bulgogi Burger in Korea to the pork McCountry in the Czech and Slovak Republics, the country’s menus around the world are fairly standard, and of course, dull. And McDonald’s does have a history of fighting local sourcing and adopting a more humane supply chain. Slow food advocates are taking McDonald’s localization as a personal affront, accusing the Golden Arches of poking foodies’ eyes in the least and declaring war on local culture at the most.
Any perceived assaults on Italian food and culture, however, are overblown by the slow food crowd, a posse notorious for snobbery and self-importance. The reality is that even if every one of McDonald’s 600,000 daily sales in Italy were a full super-sized burger and fries combo (not the case, Europeans eat lighter than their pudgy American cousins), the fact remains that approximately one in 200 meals in Italy a day is consumed at McDonald’s. Local chains are also serving their share of quick and low-quality meals to Italians, so the the foreign chains are not solely to blame for the change in Italians’ eating habits. Furthermore, Italian conglomerates like Parmalat have sold and exported their share of marginal goods in and outside of Italy, and European cities are brimming with local fast food eateries serving dubious food. Culinary pollution is not just a McDonald’s issue.
Furthermore, that Italian teenager, young office worker or even pensioner who slaps his or her culture in the face with an occasional lunch out at McD’s will still return home in the evening, nosh on something, or a lot of somethings at home, and in the end, breathe, eat and live like an Italian. McDonald’s efforts at local and more responsible sourcing still have a long ways to go, but if some local farms benefit because some spinach leaves end up on a burger, then the consumer and local farmer wins. And judging by the copious amounts of Italian imports that are found everywhere from American supermarkets to Japanese department stores, Italian food and drink exports (about $24 billion annually, give or take) are far outperforming and outshining McDonald’s pallid burgers (about $24 billion in sales globally). McDonald’s is no threat to Italian food. Any race, in fact, is not even close.
Photo courtesy Grist.