Prosciutto capital to host Europe's food watchdog

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The Independent Online

Two years after he demanded that the first pan-European food safety agency should be sited in his native Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, the maverick Italian premier, has got his way. Parma has been chosen as the host city of the European Union's new body.

The decision, which provoked anger in some capitals, ends a long-running feud which had blocked the launch of nine EU agencies. After a fresh round of horsetrading, the location of the agencies was agreed at a weekend EU summit, with Britain winning the Central Police Training and Development Authority for Bramshill, Hampshire.

But Mr Berlusconi, who chaired the meeting because Italy holds the presidency of the EU, managed to grab the juiciest prize for Parma. The decision to set up an EU food safety authority was taken after the BSE crisis rocked European agriculture, shattering consumer confidence in beef.

"Victory, victory, victory!" exulted Gianni Alemanno, minister for agricultural politics. "The Berlusconi government has succeeded in giving the Italian food industry the victory it deserves. The EU recognises that Parma has the role of capital of quality and of food safety. It is a victory for tradition, identity and Italian history."

Such an outcome had seemed highly unlikely two years ago, when Mr Berlusconi combined his demand for the food safety agency to be sited in Italy with insulting Finland's national cuisine. He told an EU summit in 2001: "Parma is synonymous with good cuisine. The Finns don't even know what prosciutto is."

Mr Berlusconi's increasingly angry tone provoked Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, to respond: "I love Parma, but you'll never get it if you argue like that."

One of the richest cities in Italy, Parma has become a byword for Italy's wider success in not only preserving the traditional quality of its food, but also persuading the rest of the world to eat it. One of the city's most famous products is, of course, its sweet and tender Parma ham. It is cured in huge sheds outside the city, all facing the same way so the dangling hams catch the full benefit of breezes from the mountains.

Another renowned local product is Parmigiano-Reggiano, or Parmesan cheese. It is formed by hand into large cylinders, each containing 550 litres of milk and aged for at least two years before being sent to market.

The two products are naturally symbiotic, as the pigs used for Parma ham feed on the whey left over from making the cheese. However, Parma's ham industry has expanded to such an extent that, while all the curing is done in the Parma area, the pigs are reared in farms across north and central Italy.

In May, Parma's ham producers won a legal fight against Britain's Asda supermarket chain to retain the sole right to slice and package its product. The meticulous attention paid in the city's 8,000 food businesses, which have an annual turnover of 5.5bn (£3.9bn), to every detail of food production, from the salting and hand-massaging of the hams through their patient curing to the precision slicing, is likely to have been a significant factor in Parma's success.

The new agency brings with it an annual budget of 40m and a payroll of 255 employees, rising to 330 in three years. But Mr Berlusconi may yet pay a diplomatic price for the deal because the country holding the presidency of the EU is supposed to play the role of honest broker. One EU diplomat argued yesterday: "I don't see how the other countries could accept such a situation where the presidency in office takes the biggest element of the deal. It is a scandal of some proportions."

Under the deal, Lille in France gets the EU's rail safety body, with Lisbon awarded the authority for maritime safety, and Cologne for air safety. Sweden won a centre for the prevention and control of disease and Spain will host one for fisheries.