I traveled last week to Italy, to attend an annual gathering of farmers interested in slow food -- Terra Madre. As impressive as the event itself was, the food around Turin and the commitment here to “good, clean, and fair” food is every bit as remarkable.  

On our first night here, my wife Jessica, my friend Alex, and I stopped into a popular local Gelato shop that’s just made its way to New York. As we looked over the menu at Grom we saw little marks that signaled which gelato flavors were made with ingredients that meet Slow Food’s Presidia standards.

At lunch the next day, at a restaurant that we picked mainly because it had a table open, we noticed that several items were marked with a heart -- indicating that they were made with Presidia ingredients. Commitment to good food is something of a national obsession in Italy, where debates about which region has the best victuals are as fierce as U.S. presidential debate. And we could stand to take a page out of their book.

Marketers are increasingly using all kinds of “seals of approval” on products, from the label of the American Heart Association to the USDA’s organic label. These labels are useful, but they don’t convey the breadth of all the important issues that are at play when we purchase and eat food. There is no label to mark foods that were grown with culinary quality, ecological soundness and social health in mind. Except the Slow Food Presidia label. Here’s what their website says:  

“The Presidia sustain quality production at risk of extinction, protect unique regions and ecosystems, recover traditional processing methods, safeguard native breeds and local plant varieties.”

The Presidia label offers a holistic approach to food that is missing from other, more limited, more easily abused labels. I have been farming in ways that meet organic standards for years, and I have never wanted to stick the label on my products. But a label like Presidia is a different story; I'd work hard to earn it.

In Italy, food isn’t simply what you eat. It’s culture, heritage and conviviality. We in the U.S. would do well to adopt their outlook as well as their labels.

Story by Ragan Sutterfield. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2008. The story was added to MNN.com.

Copyright Environ Press 2008