Food prices are squeezing Europe. Now Italians are calling for a pasta protest

by Madison Thomas
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food prices

Italians are up in arms over the exorbitant prices of pasta, a beloved staple in every Italian household. In response, they have launched a resounding cry: Basta!

The cost of pasta has skyrocketed at twice the rate of inflation, leaving consumers frustrated and overwhelmed. To combat this issue, a consumer advocacy group named Assoutenti is calling for a weeklong nationwide pasta strike, scheduled to commence on June 22. This protest comes after the Rome government convened a crisis meeting last month but decided against intervening in the pricing crisis.

Furio Truzzi, the president of Assoutenti, explained the purpose of the macaroni strike, stating, “We hope that keeping pasta off the shelves will lead to a decrease in prices, in the tradition of boycotting goods, which is prevalent in Anglo-Saxon countries. The current price of pasta is grossly disproportionate to its production costs.”

While grocery prices have risen significantly in Europe, outpacing other advanced economies like the United States and Japan, experts attribute this surge to higher energy and labor costs, as well as the repercussions of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Paradoxically, the prices of food commodities, including wheat used in pasta production, have actually dropped from record highs over the past few months.

While stores and suppliers have been accused of engaging in “greedflation” by inflating profits, economists argue that the issue lies in the higher costs associated with food production.

Feeling the mounting pressure, several European governments have taken steps to address the problem. Some have implemented price caps on essential food items, while others have sought agreements with grocery stores to reduce costs. While these measures may be popular with the public, they can inadvertently exacerbate the problem of escalating food prices.

Shoppers, such as 26-year-old Noée Borey from Paris, support the imposition of price limits on certain food items to aid low-income workers and students. Borey herself has adjusted her shopping habits, purchasing less meat and opting for more affordable grocery stores. She noted, “The prices of all the products I buy have increased by 20%, whether it’s butter or berries. I’ve stopped buying cherries because they now cost 15 euros per kilo” (approximately $8 per pound).

France has reached a three-month agreement with supermarket chains to lower prices on hundreds of essential goods, a pact that is expected to be extended through the summer. Similarly, the United Kingdom, where food inflation has reached a 45-year high, is considering a similar approach.

Hungary, which has experienced the highest food inflation among European Union countries, and Croatia have implemented price controls on items such as cooking oil, select pork cuts, wheat flour, and milk.

Although the Italian government has stated that it will strengthen price monitoring in collaboration with the country’s 20 regions, it has opted not to impose limits on prices.

Spain has refrained from implementing price controls but has abolished value-added tax on essential products and reduced the tax on cooking oil and pasta by 50%, setting it at 5%.

These measures come as food banks witness a surge in demand across several countries. Helen Barnard from the Trussell Trust, a charity operating a significant number of food banks in the United Kingdom, noted, “Things are not improving; they are worsening for people.” Anna Sjovorr-Packham, who manages multiple community food pantries in South London, expressed her struggles in purchasing essentials such as milk, pasta, and fresh vegetables to supplement donated items from supermarkets.

While food and non-alcoholic drink prices in Europe have indeed fallen, from 17.5% in the euro area in March to a still-painful 15% in April, experts predict that it will take several months for store prices to stabilize. In comparison, food prices in the United States rose by 7.7% in April compared to the previous year, while Japan experienced an 8.2% increase, Canada saw a 9.1% rise, and the United Kingdom faced a staggering 19% surge.

These figures contribute to expectations that the European Central Bank will increase interest rates as a measure to counter inflation, while the U.S. Federal Reserve is projected to forgo a rate hike.

The inclination toward price controls in Europe caters to voters who are acutely aware of inflation’s impact each time they visit the checkout counter. However, Neil Shearing, the group chief economist for Capital Economics, suggests that such interventions should be reserved for instances of supply shocks, such as war. He argues that imposing controls could actually exacerbate food inflation by increasing demand from shoppers while discouraging new supplies.

While pasta remains one of the more affordable items in grocery baskets, its symbolism carries a profound resonance in the Italian psyche. This struggle over pasta prices coincides with families grappling with higher prices across the board, affecting items like sugar, rice, olive oil, and potatoes.

According to Assoutenti, Italian families of four spend an average of 915 euros ($984) more per year on groceries, marking a nearly 12% increase and bringing the total to 7,690 euros annually. A SWG poll revealed that one-third of Italians have reduced their grocery spending, with nearly half opting for discount stores.

Even discounted prices fail to provide the relief they once did, further burdening pensioners who face the greatest challenges. Retiree Carlo Compellini, while shopping in central Rome, reminisced, “Before, you could buy two packs of pasta for 1 euro. Now, with 2 euros, you get three packs.”

Inflation is making it increasingly difficult for many individuals to afford even small indulgences, further accentuating the divide between the affluent and the less fortunate.

The recent opening of a Sacher Café in Trieste, an Italian city known for its Austro-Hungarian heritage and distinguished architecture, sparked controversy. The mayor’s response to complaints about the high price of a slice of the renowned Viennese chocolate cake was widely ridiculed. Mayor Roberto Dipiazza remarked, “If you have money, go. If you don’t, watch.”

Contributors to this report: Sacha Bianchi and Angela Charlton in Paris; Sylvia Hui in London; Rebecca Preciutti in Rome; Justin Spike in Budapest, Hungary; and Jennifer O’Mahony in Madrid.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about food prices, pasta protest

What is the reason behind the pasta protest in Italy?

The pasta protest in Italy is a response to the soaring food prices, particularly the exorbitant cost of pasta. Italians are frustrated with the prices that have risen twice as fast as inflation, leading them to call for a weeklong national pasta strike as a means of demonstrating their dissatisfaction.

Why are food prices rising in Europe?

Food prices in Europe have been on the rise due to various factors. Higher energy and labor costs, as well as the impact of the conflict in Ukraine, have contributed to the price surge. Additionally, there have been fluctuations in the cost of food commodities, such as wheat used in pasta production. These combined elements have led to the increase in food prices across the continent.

Are price controls an effective solution to combat rising food prices?

Price controls, although popular with the public, can have unintended consequences when it comes to addressing rising food prices. While they may temporarily alleviate the burden on consumers, they can discourage new supplies and potentially exacerbate the problem. Price controls are typically recommended for situations involving supply shocks, such as during times of war, rather than as a long-term solution for addressing inflation.

How are other European countries responding to rising food prices?

Several European countries have taken various measures to tackle rising food prices. France has reached agreements with supermarket chains to lower prices on essential goods, while the United Kingdom is considering similar actions. Hungary and Croatia have implemented price controls on select food items. Meanwhile, Spain has abolished value-added tax on essential products and reduced tax rates on certain food items to mitigate the impact of rising prices.

How are families and individuals affected by the high food prices?

Families and individuals are facing the consequences of high food prices in Europe. Italian families, for example, have seen a significant increase in their grocery expenses, with the cost of groceries rising by nearly 12%. Many people have been forced to reduce their spending at grocery stores or resort to shopping at discount stores. The rising prices are making it more difficult for individuals, particularly pensioners and low-income households, to afford essential food items.

Are there any signs of improvement or relief in the near future?

While food and non-alcoholic drink prices have shown a slight decrease, it may take several months for store prices to stabilize. Economists anticipate that inflation concerns may prompt the European Central Bank to raise interest rates, while the U.S. Federal Reserve may abstain from doing so. The path towards more affordable food prices remains uncertain, and it will require a combination of factors, such as improved supply chains and stable commodity costs, to bring relief to consumers.

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