How Food Labels with DOP and IGP Help Preserve Italian Culinary Heritage

Note from the Editor: I have a Masters Degree in Food Policy and it still took me years to decipher Italian food labels because they seem to be stamped and stickered with all kinds of abbreviations. However, there is a rhyme and reason behind the madness of exactly what DOP and IGP (and all of Italy’s other food acronyms) mean. In short, all of these acronyms are meant to help guarantee that the food in the package is actually from the place that it claims to be from. Here to tell you all about it is Raya, who is interning for An American in Rome and working on a series of posts about how to find the best, authentic Italian food. Buon Appetito! -Natalie

I visited the Spanish steps today and stumbled upon a little shop selling wine, olive oil, and various pasta secca, or dried pasta. Okay fine, I’ll admit I actually went in because there was a sign outside that said “Truffle tasting!” Classic tourist trap, but I’ll bite.

White and black truffle spreads

What really caught my eye as soon as I entered, though, was a little display of cheese. They’re produced by a farm called Bertinelli, and there were some fliers with the headline “Parmigiano Reggiano DOP.”

“DOP” is a phrase I’ve seen a couple times here in markets, so I asked the shopkeeper about what it meant. She shrugged. Well, it turns out DOP is an important part of 1992 EU regulations to preserve culinary heritage, so here’s your handy cheat sheet to DOP and its younger sibling, IGP – plus why you should always choose to buy foods with these labels over others.

While the rules behind these labels may be technical, the intent behind them is simple: enable consumers to distinguish authentic regional specialties from the knockoffs, allow food producers to charge higher prices for upholding the regional culture, and to promote the preservation of traditional food products and culinary methods.

DOP: Denominazione di Origine Protetta

In English, DOP is translated as PDO: protected designation of origin.

Foods that are certified DOP are entirely produced within a certain geographical area. Everything–from the origins of raw supplies to the production method–is regulated and done the traditional way. Various types of olive oil, vinegar, cheese, and even meats can now be certified as DOP.

Here are some rules for Parmigiano Reggiano:

  1. It can only be made in Parma, Reggio, Bologna, Mantua, or Moderna
  2. The cows must be fed on dry local fodder
  3. The cheese is aged for at least 12 months
  4. No additives may be added

If you read the official document for Parmigiano Reggiano, you’ll see that there are even rules regarding the shape and height of the resulting cheese blocks (cylinders with a “slightly convex or virtually straight”, height 20 to 26 cm).

Producers of many DOP foods are so concerned with safeguarding traditional tastes that they form consortiums dedicated to their products. The Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium originated in 1909, was formally institutionalized in 1928, and to this day continues to promote its fragrant cheese.

Parmigiano Reggiano DOP from Azienda Agricola Bertinelli dairy farm

IGP: Indicazione Geografica Protetta

In English, IGP is translated as PGI: Protected Geographical Indication.

IGP is similar to DOP, but its regulations are less strict. Rather than having the entire production, processing, or preparation process within one geographical area, IGP products have at least one phase that takes place in the region.

One example of an IGP product is the Tuscan Cantucci, a crispy, twice-baked biscotti made with whole (never sliced!) almonds. Its official document explains that the consistency of it must start grainy with a subtle crunch, then melt in your mouth “with a relative humidity” of 3 to 7 percent. Production must take place in Tuscany, but unlike DOP Parmigiano Reggiano, the raw materials don’t necessarily need to be local.

Sardegna Lamb Shoulder IGP as sold in grocery stores

Why you should buy food with DOP or IGP labels

DOP and IGP products might be a little pricier because there are strict guidelines about where their origins and production. But when you buy certified products, you can be sure that what you’re eating is totally authentic. Italian foods are now so well-known that many food companies are selling products that are similar in name only, without using any of the traditional ingredients or recipes.

The Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium, for example, started in part to discuss how to distinguish their cheese from Argentina’s Reggianito Parmesan, which is aged for only 6 months instead of 12 and sold for cheaper. In a strange twist of events, Parmesan cheese now faces its own competition from companies selling “Parmesan” made with cheap cheddar and wood pulp.

Have you seen DOP or IGP products in your local market? Do you have a favorite? Let us know in the comments below! 

P.S. If you’re hungry for more, you’ll find the regulations for IGP and DOP products in EU documents called disciplinare. 

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

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