Italians told to say no to pasta

The Baltimore Sun

VENICE, Italy -- Italians plan to say Basta! to pasta today - to their beloved fettuccine, linguine, spaghetti and even elegant angel hair - in the country's first-ever pasta strike.

The nationwide boycott has been organized by Italy's four main consumer groups to protest pasta prices that have soared by as much as 20 percent in the past two months.

The culprit, pasta makers say, is the demand for biofuels, the same thing that's raising the price of beer in Germany and tortillas in Mexico.

Consumer groups know the boycott is a tall order when the average Italian eats pasta once a day and consumes about 119 pounds per year. In fact, a recent survey found that nearly half of all Italian men and women would rather tuck into a plate of pasta than have sex.

But the groups have asked Italians not to buy any pasta at stores today, and to try their best not to eat any at home. They say that would send an important signal to politicians that the country is fed up with climbing prices.

The strike has drawn a harsh rebuke from Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

"There is no justification for the alarms over price rises," he told reporters. Even so, the government has agreed to hold talks with food producers this month.

There's evidence that not everyone is bothered by the high prices.

Orlando Micheluzzi, manager of a shop in Venice about a five-minute walk from St. Mark's Square that sells colored pastas popular with tourists, agreed that pasta prices had gone up.

"But this isn't going to stop anyone from eating pasta," he said. "Prices would have to go up a lot more before people would stop eating pasta completely."

Louise Moretti, a cleaner at one of the cafes in St. Mark's Square, pointed out that pasta is a staple in Italy, just like bread and milk. Therefore, she said, the government should step in if prices keep rising.

"I'm not going to stop eating pasta, but I don't want to pay big prices either," said Moretti, who even likes pasta for breakfast with a little butter and olive oil.

Pasta makers say they have no choice but to pass on their costs, with international wheat prices at their highest level in more than a decade.

In a statement, the Italian pasta makers' group Unipi said that the price of durum wheat has risen by as much as 70 percent. The grain accounts for more than 50 percent of the costs of making pasta.

The manufacturers say there's a shortage of wheat because it has been replaced in many European fields by rapeseed (usually called canola in the United States), which can be turned into biofuel.

Another factor, some say, is global warming.

Joe Sowers, senior market analyst at U.S. Wheat Associates, an export market development organization for the U.S. wheat industry, said that hot weather has indeed played a role in places like Canada, where durum yields are down 17 percent compared with last year.

Sowers pointed out that in the long run, "markets tend to correct themselves" as higher prices lead farmers to plant more wheat.

But in the meantime, rising pasta prices are cutting into U.S. demand, too.

"I can confirm that we are seeing rising pasta prices over here," said Gregory Berry, a spokesman for Mariano Italian Foods, a food importer and distributor based in Connecticut. "Our retail sales have declined somewhat due to the price hikes."

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