ROME — Italy's agriculture minister defended his sponsorship of McDonald's new all-Italian burger Monday amid criticism that he is selling out to a multinational corporation and sacrificing Italy's culinary reputation in the process.
Minister Luca Zaia has argued that McDonald's new McItaly burger — using all Italian beef, Asiago cheese and artichoke spread — will pump €3.5 million ($4.8 million) more a month into the pockets of Italian farmers grappling with tough economic times.
But for a country that gave birth to the Slow Food movement a quarter-century ago and prides itself on its varied, delicious and healthy cuisine, Zaia's enthusiastic support of McDonald's has been hard to swallow.
It didn't help that Zaia and McDonald's executives launched the new burger last month at McDonald's flagship restaurant in Rome's historic center near the Spanish Steps, the chain's first Italian outpost.
The opening of those Golden Arches in 1986 famously inspired a relatively unknown Turin foodie, Carlo Petrini, to launch what became Slow Food — the international movement that embraces local, organic food and home cooking over fast food and the industrialized food chain.
In a recent front-page opinion piece in La Repubblica newspaper, Petrini challenged Zaia and McDonald's to back up their claims of helping Italian farmers with a kilo-by-kilo accounting of how much farmers are actually getting paid out of the deal.
And he chafed at Zaia's suggestion that the all-Italian menu would "globalize the identity of Italian agriculture."
"Taste, like identity, has value only when there are differences," Petrini wrote.
The opposition Democratic Party has also slammed Zaia's use of an official government seal of approval for the new burger. On the McItaly's promotional material is a seal saying "Under the patronage of" the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry — a highly coveted government endorsement that is more often seen on museum exhibits and cultural initiatives than fast-food containers.
"I think it's legitimate to ask if Minister Zaia is working for Italy or McDonald's," Nicodemo Oliverio, the top Democratic Party lawmaker in the lower Chamber of Deputies' agriculture commission, quipped Monday.
He charged that giving McDonald's such a designation creates a disparity with Italian food companies that may require Italy's antitrust authority to intervene.
Zaia shot back saying the government had long been in partnership with McDonald's to promote other "Made in Italy" products such as parmesan cheese and smoked beef.
Zaia, who relentlessly courts publicity for Italy's agricultural products, has defended his partnership with McDonald's as an important new market for Italy's farmers and a way to reach young Italians who make up the bulk of McDonald's customers.
He said Monday the first week of sales — some 100,000 burgers — had exceeded expectations. In the coming weeks, a new burger featuring smoked bacon and grilled onions, as well as an all-Italian ingredient salad, will be rolled out in McDonald's 392 Italian restaurants.
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