Don't mess with the cheese sheriff

Inspector Giorgio Capovani laid out his array of cheese impostors: a wedge of “Parmesansan” made in Lithuania, a container of “Parmazano Fiorentino” produced in Britain and labeled “dairy-free,” a chunk of German “Parmezano” sold in Mexico.

The motley assortment of long-expired cheese products he keeps in a refrigerator is proof that rip-offs know no borders, nor limits to the imagination. And it's not just cheese. Hams can be suspect, too. And basil. And vinegar.

Capovani, whose rotund belly could rival a huge wheel of the cheese officially titled Parmigiano-Reggiano, belongs to a growing breed of food detectives sought by producers of Italian foods that have earned prestigious European Union protection.

In the Wild West of gastronomical rip-offs, men like Capovani are a kind of sheriff. They are sworn judicial officers who can demand admission to premises, examine documentation and confiscate products at wholesalers' warehouses or supermarket aisles.

“We can even carry firearms, although we don't,” said another food detective, Domenico D'Aniello.

EU protection, indicated by the alphabet-soup designations DOP and IGP, has been granted to some of Italy's best-known products, including Bufala Mozzarella, Parma prosciutto, balsamic vinegar from Modena, San Marzano tomatoes and Gorgonzola cheese.

Across Europe, dozens of food products – from Greek feta cheese to Britain's Jersey Royal potatoes – enjoy EU trademark protection. But in Italy, producers have proved particularly fastidious about hunting down counterfeiters.

After all, the gourmet food business is among Italy's biggest industries.

Ham haul is huge

Paolo Facioni, a spokesman for the Italian farm lobby Coldiretti, said DOP and IGP products account for about $14 billion in annual sales – but the figure would be much higher if consumers always bought the real thing.

DOP applies to products whose qualities depend essentially on the territory, including climate, where they are produced. IGP is slightly less rigid. It requires that at least one phase of production take place in a particular geographic area.

Late last year, authorities seized about 1,000 hams in warehouses and supermarkets throughout Italy. The haul may have just been the tip of the iceberg: Investigators say there's no way of telling just how many hams had already vanished into stomachs in the guise of the coveted Parma or San Daniele varieties in the massive DOP scam.

Accused in the case are six Italians, including two from the town of Ferrara, where police say blacksmiths forged machines to brand hams with the DOP prosciutto trademark of a five-pointed crown.

Crown points are clues

Food detective D'Aniello, a specialist in Parma prosciutto, worked closely with the food fraud unit of the paramilitary Carabinieri police, and his sleuthing took him on a trail of fake hams from Rovigo in northern Italy to Palma di Montechiaro, a town in Sicily.

In a deli in Parma, D'Aniello showed a reporter how the perpetrators' near-perfect prosciutto caper was foiled.

He ran a finger over the rind of one of dozens of hams hanging in the shop and stopped at the tiniest of imperfections in the five-pointed crown. The consortium deliberately makes an almost imperceptible flaw in the crown every two years to thwart counterfeiters, then distributes the branding machine to prosciutto makers. Producers receive a new brand every three months to make sure the imprint on the rind is sharp.

D'Aniello visits producers to ensure all branding machines are accounted for.

The Parma prosciutto consortium says it spends about $750,000 a year in legal fees to protect its product.

“It's not so much for the monetary damage. It's a damage to our reputation, our image,” said Federico Desimoni, a legal adviser to the consortium. “Even 10 (fraudulent) prosciuttos can hurt. Imagine 1,000. You can lose consumers.”

Foods' meticulous care

Parma prosciutto makers swear their ham is sweeter and stress it contains no chemical additives, just a little salt. The prosciutto is aged in cavernous rooms where air quality and sunlight are carefully controlled.

Inspectors such as D'Aniello are trained to spot-check hams air-drying in warehouses with ceilings so high they seem like cathedrals. The hams are given five pokes with a needle made from a horse's shin bone, which absorbs and quickly releases aromas. The needle is then sniffed to check for Parma prosciutto's characteristic smell.

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheesemaking has its own centuries-old traditions.

The cheese is made with raw milk from cows fed hay grown in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena or Mantua on the right bank of the river Po, and Bologna province on the left bank of the river Reno.

At the family-run Scalabrini farm outside Reggio Emilia, Capovani checked the ledgers to make sure they didn't sell more cheese wheels than they had molds – plastic bands stamped with the production date and marked with a series of tiny dots that are the cheese's trademark.

Parmigiano Reggiano, when grated, is particularly ripe for rip-offs. So, too, is Parma ham once it sheds its rind. DOP Parma prosciutto can only be sliced and packaged in the area where it is produced.

Food fights in court

Increasingly, DOP duels are fought in the courts.

In February, the European Court of Justice ruled that the name “Parmesan cheese” must refer exclusively to Parmigiano-Reggiano DOP, even though many cheesemakers contend Parmesan is just a generic term for hard cheese.

Cheeses that sound enough like Parmesan – like the Lithuanian “Parmesansan” – to potentially mislead consumers are in a legal gray zone.

Big food companies mostly want to use the Parmesan name for convenient marketing, but Italian counterfeiters try to pass off their cheeses as authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano by forging the trademark.

The prosciutto consortium said it successfully battled a London supermarket chain that did its own slicing.

The Parma consortium lost a 15-year battle in Canada, where someone beat them to their trademark name. Now, consortium members sell their product in Canada as “The Original Prosciutto.”