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Parasecoli: Knowing where it comes from

Thalita Kalix G. Santana

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PARASECOLI, F., Knowing where it comes from: Labeling Traditional Food to Compete in a Global Market (2017), University of Iowa Press [Iowa] 254p.

1In his latest book, Fabio Parasecoli presents a comprehensive discussion on traditional food labeling, detailing the currently used systems, its historical and evolving processes, and the actors implicated in this global market competition. Parasecoli is a Professor of Food Studies at New York University and Lecturer at the University of Bologna - Food and Wine MBA and the University of Gastronomic Sciences. He has published Bite Me! Food in Popular Culture; A Cultural History of Food, coedited with Peter Scholliers; Al Dente: A History of Food in Italy; and Feasting Our Eyes: Food Films and Cultural identity in the United States, with Laura Lindenfeld. His experience as a magazine’s writer (at Gambero Rosso and Huffington Post) is evident in the fluid and accessible text of Knowing where it comes from, even though much of the discussion focuses on detailing laws and regulations – a topic often not attractive to a broader public.

2The book raises issues about food traditions labeling and food heritage that are debated currently in the different disciplines that comprise the food studies field. This book contributes by its analysis of how the power struggles of the global market determine the evolution of these labeling systems, and how, despite the declared intention of trying to reduce inequalities, sometimes these processes just reinforce the preexisting social dynamics. As well, the book is accessible to different levels of readers, dispelling the current idea that only experts can understand the laws and regulations. Another useful tool offered to food studies scholars by the book is the Chronology of Laws, Treaties, and Administrative Measures presented in the first pages.

3Parasecoli presents three main models of place-based labeling. Most of the book focuses on the Geographical Indications (GIs), detailing and understanding the different systems, their processes, complexities, and conflicts. He dedicates the first four chapters to detailing the GIs, the process of developing over time and how the concept is created, the two different systems – sui generis and mark-based -, and the political and social implications of the GIs in local development. He then presents two alternative models of labeling food products: The Slow Food Presidia, as a civil society action, and the lists and safeguard projects of supranational organizations, such as UNESCO and FAO.

4He departs from descriptions of the growth of interest in traditional and authentic products, explaining it as a reaction to globalization dynamics that were perceived as a threat to local specificities. Parasecoli argues for the idea that food purchasing choices play an essential role in the definition of oneself as an individual. These choices then end up being a political statement, implied in social dynamics and cultural preoccupation. In this context, a product that demonstrates its connection to localized place and people guarantees its legitimacy to consumers in the global market. Once he has established this idea, Parasecoli proposes to explore different approaches to emphasize the connection of a food product to its origin and the subsequent impacts these schemes have on social, economic, and political arrangements, local, national, and globally. The author notes the increased interest for these local, differentiated products in the Global South – countries where traditional foods are frequently and historically considered as marginal foods linked to the poor. Focusing on these communities, he highlights the growth of culinary tourism, sustainable tourism, and ecotourism as another tool of development linked to food. Parasecoli then turns to the complexity created by the variety of labels existent in the last decades. As he points out, differentiating between a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and a Geographical Indication requires a dedication by consumers to educate themselves about these intellectual property systems. Thus, he outlines a macro vision of the state of GIs in 2017. As he stresses, much of the tension among the trade nations and consumer confusion stem from the existence of two different systems: the European one, also known as sui generis, and the US one, also known as mark-based.

5In the first chapter, Parasecoli summarizes the history of GIs. GIs did not appear out of the blue; rather, they were the progression of various concepts and international agreements that had been signed over decades – even centuries. The second chapter is dedicated to breaking down the Sui Generis System. It is a stricter model that emerges in a socioeconomic context that leads to the development of a legal framework connected to cultural discourses on customs and identity. This framework focuses on the safeguarding of local, traditional food products and crops and assuring employment alternatives in rural communities when the industrial sector was shrinking. The Mark-Based Systems are described and discussed in the third chapter. Even though this kind of system exists in many countries, it is the one that the U.S. applies that makes a significant impact on international trademark disputes in opposition to the European sui generis system. For this reason, Parasecoli delineates the history of the U.S Federal Mark System. As he points out, since the late nineteenth century, the U.S. favored an agricultural system based on regional and nationwide trade rather than on local networks. As a result, agricultural policies supported industrial crops instead of small-scale agriculture production that included traditional varieties. Once the relationship with producers was no longer common, consumers began to trust in brands. Thus, the U.S. mark system is more focused on protecting the innovation, creativity, and investment in research and development, instead of safeguarding existing traditions.

6That leads to the debate of the fourth chapter on the relationship among GIs, global trade wars, and local development. Parasecoli uses Appadurai’s concept of “gastro-politics” (1981) to explain that on the one hand, these disputes reflect the different role played by food in identity from an ideological and cultural perspective. On the other hand, they are the expression of how cultural identities conflict over intellectual property and the regulatory system that supports it. He highlights the conflicts between countries with different systems. As an example, he cites the use of regional names under generic categories in New World countries, such as the use of names like “parmesan”, “feta”, or “dijon”, for example, even though these names are PDOs or PGIs in their traditional country of origin. He also delineates the mechanisms and instances at WTO in charge of mediating these kinds of conflicts, highlighting the importance of bilateral and regional agreements to solve these tensions. The author reinforces his initial argument, showing how depending on the context where the GI is applied, it can be either a tool of development or reinforcement of existing regional inequalities, once the communities and individuals affected by the GI frequently remain invisible at this level of negotiation. Also, not always considered is that many times the viability of a GI depends on delocalized consumers, whose preferences can shift, compromising the continuity of small communities’ traditions. Alternatively, at the other end, the growing appreciation of a product or crop can increase its price, subsequently making it inaccessible to the local population that traditionally consumes it. All of these consequences have been addressed and discussed by different authors in the Food Heritage and GIs studies. Parasecoli also points out that the requirement when applying for a GI in the E.U. system that documents should show the historical ties of the product with the area can reinforce inequalities. This requirement excludes populations that have no writing traditions from the process.

7In order to contrast these inequalities of GIs, Parasecoli then examines civil society action, focusing on the Slow Food’s project Presidia as a place-based label created intentionally outside the international framework that regulates intellectual property and trade. Unlike GIs, the Presidia project is not coordinated by lawyers or public administrators but by the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. Even more, this effort focuses on the communities’ cultural and social links to a territory, rather than just the product’s place of origin. However, he ponders, as Slow Food reinforces the argument that traditional food and crops that require intensive labor and produce small quantities to sell at higher prices, Slow Food restricts the potential buyers. This effort usually leads to consumers from outside the region – those with financial means and interest in trying these specialties, which can ultimately create local instability. Even though it is possible to identify E.U. GIs influences in the Slow Food project, there are two main differences. First, there is no legal protection for the products’ names in Presidia. Second, Presidium products are promoted by their organoleptic qualities, limited availability, and potential risk of extinction. At the chapter’s end, Parasecoli raises the question as to whether a community embedded place-based label such as Presidia is able to promote products, support producers economically, socially, and culturally, without the intellectual property protection of the product’s name.

8The last two chapters describe more recent transnational initiatives whose impacts cannot yet be assessed because of a lack of data. First, the book covers the labels, schemes, and tools of international organizations such as UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) and FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) to safeguard food-related cultural identities and material practices. He presents an overview of four place-based labeling systems of these organizations: the UNESCO’s World Heritage List of cultural landscapes; the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) by FAO; the UNESCO’s Cities of Gastronomy, a promotional tool to increase the value of gastronomy as a cultural resource to be enjoyed in its origin – attracting tourists and arising the local interest in food traditions; and, finally, the inclusion of intangible cultural goods on UNESCO’s World’s Heritage List, as in the addition of the Gastronomic meal of France, the Traditional Mexican cuisine and the Mediterranean Diet. Parasecoli points out the contradiction that, even if the communities are involved, the proposals are mainly top-down, since only national authorities can present a dossier to UNESCO – what can reinforce situations of exclusion. Although none of UNESCO’s and FAO’s labels are commercially oriented, they are frequently associated with tourism as a tool to local development. The last chapter addresses indigenous knowledge, a concept that, even though it has appeared in litigation and juridical arguments, still has no accepted legal definition based on international agreements. Even though the 2014 Nagoya Protocol was ratified in 2017 by ninety-six parties, recognizing that cultural heritage is also oral and ‘in other forms,’ there is still a lot to be addressed. The outcome of these international negotiations, highlights Parasecoli, will impact how the revenue from indigenous products is distributed along their value chain and how their governance dynamics are worked out.

9In the end, Parasecoli’s Knowing where it comes from presents a rich and detailed panorama of the existent systems of Geographical Indications, compared to alternative labeling processes proposed by a civil society organization and supranational organizations. The advantages and flaws of each model are pointed out. Parasecoli also analyzes the possibilities of integration and use of more than one system by the same food product in other to achieve more effective safeguards. Even though there is not a profound case study – it is not the goal of the book –, Parasecoli presents examples that tackle the different dynamics of the place-based labeling process, showing the struggles and negotiations by diverse levels of powers and actors in these production chains. He also demonstrates that there is an unequal distribution of these labels around the globe, with a concentration on post-industrial societies – even if they may represent a promising tool for development in the global South countries. As Parasecoli defends, in order to move past being only an advantage in the international market, place-based labels need to alter their structures, embracing more universal dynamics and values. However, to have a stronger empirical basis to implement such changes, more studies are necessary, particularly in developing countries. These studies need to examine the implantation processes and subsequent impacts of diverse label systems on the communities. This perspective corroborates other studies on GIs and food heritage in different countries, thus adding a great foundation for further research. Therefore, this book is useful and timely for all disciplines engaged in food studies and can be a good reading to understand the power struggles entangled in differentiating food products by their origins.

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Appadurai, Arjun. 1981. “Gastro-Politics in Hindu South Asia.” American Ethnologist 8 (3): 494-511.

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Electronic reference

Thalita Kalix G. Santana, « Parasecoli: Knowing where it comes from », Anthropology of food [Online], book reviews, summer 2018, Online since 06 September 2018, connection on 29 March 2020. URL :

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About the author

Thalita Kalix G. Santana

PhD candidate at Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Anthropology and Communication Program,

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Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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