McDonald’s, Made in Italy

by Alice Walton:

Behind a row of Vespas in a crowded Roman alleyway, a new sign has replaced the iconic red and gold of McDonald’s. This one sports the seal of the republic of Italy to advertise McDonald’s newest menu item: The McItaly. The taste of McDonald’s speaks Italian, boasts the ad, referring to the restaurant’s new line of burgers made from 100 percent Italian ingredients. But many Italians are not so certain. For many it is unthinkable that Italy, the birthplace of the Slow Food movement that now has over 100,000 followers worldwide could endorse a McDonald’s burger.

A sign points the way to one of Rome's many McDonald's outlets. (Walton/TYG)

The McItaly burger was ceremoniously unveiled in late January of 2010 at Rome’s flagship McDonald’s by Luca Zaia, Italy’s minister of agriculture, health, and the environment. Donning a McDonald’s apron, he lauded the burger as a boon to Italian farmers. McDonald’s represents an important outlet and a new market for our farmers, he said. Italy’s agriculture could not lose this opportunity. The burgers and salads in the McItaly line are predicted to bring an additional $350 million to the Italian economy.

The McItaly, however, has not entered the market without controversy. Many are furious that the Italian government could help market a hamburger line for McDonald’s. “It’s definitely not a good way to market ‘Made in Italy’ – not through McDonald’s”, said high school student Stefano Birisi as he finished his McItaly at a McDonald’s in Rome.

Other Italian McDonald’s customers saw the McItaly burger as little more than a marketing ploy, but still wanted to try it. “They can charge more by calling it a McItaly”, explained Igli Myftari, a university student in rome, “but I was interested after the ads.” Indeed, for a patty of the same size, the McItaly costs 1.20 Euro more than the Big Mac. How did he like it? “It’s not great. McDonald’s always tastes better with more fat. This is less tasty because it has less fat.”

I made my way into the Spanish Steps McDonald’s in rome, the very McDonald’s that launched the burger, to judge the hype for myself. The 100 percent beef patty covered in sautéed onions, a slice of pancetta (Italian bacon) and lettuce was dry and flavorless. Had I paid the .30 Euro for ketchup, perhaps I would have enjoyed the burger more, but it would no longer have been 100 percent Italian.

Those who take issue with the McItaly burgers, however, are less offended by the marketing scheme or taste of the burger than the principle of the Italian government aiding the fast food behemoth in a marketing campaign. “How can the Minister of Health make this deal with McDonald’s, then talk about the health of our children?” asked Franco Fancoli, president of Slow Food Rome, as he entered a small Italian trattoria which only serves food made from local ingredients. “I refuse to set foot in Mcdonald’s,” he said.

The opening of the first McDonald’s in Italy stirred enough controversy to propel Italian Carlo Petrini to found the Slow Food movement in 1989. The unveiling of the McItaly burger at that very McDonald’s came as a slap in the face to Slow Food Italy, which has otherwise supported Minister Zaia. Not only do they decry the McItaly for sullying the name of Italian cuisine, Slow Food also doubts that it will benefit Italian farmers. “If oranges are bought from the farmer for .06 Euro per kilo, then sold for 1.50 Euro, how much are they paying the farmers for the McItaly ingredients that are then sold so cheap?” asked Fancoli. Slow Food has requested this information from both McDonald’s and the relevant ministries to learn how the McItaly will affect farmers, but to no avail.

When Slow Food Italy’s Petrini published an open letter in La repubblica, one of Italy’s major newspapers, McDonald’s defended the burger with a full page ad in another paper. But while the fight rages over the patrimony of Italian cuisine, the well-being of farmers, and the health of consumers, many McDonald’s customers remain unaware of the controversy. “I’ve never heard of Slow Food. I’d seen the ad, so I wanted to try it,” said a student as he waited in line to spend 4.20 Euro for his McItaly.

McDonald’s: 1, Slow Food: 0.

Alice Walton ’10 is a History major in Pierson College.