The rise in pasta prices caused a crisis in Italy. What can the United States learn from it?

While food prices have risen in many parts of the world, a dramatic jump in one of Italy’s staple foods has prompted the government to take action.

Matthew Meade/AP

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Matthew Meade/AP

While food prices have risen in many parts of the world, a dramatic jump in one of Italy’s staple foods has prompted the government to take action.

Matthew Meade/AP

A long-running issue finally fizzled out last week, when the Italian government convened crisis talks to address skyrocketing pasta prices.

Pasta prices jumped 17.5% in March – more than double Italy’s rate of inflation – compared to the same month in 2022, despite lower wheat prices, Reuters reports. This was followed by a 16.5% year-on-year increase in April.

Of Italy’s 110 provinces, only 12 of them can buy a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of pasta for less than $2.20.And According to an April report by consumer rights group Assoutenti, citing Washington Post. She said some cities, such as Modena, have seen an increase of about 50% in pasta prices compared to last year.

Italian Industry Minister Adolfo Orso presided over a meeting with lawmakers, pasta producers and consumer rights groups in Rome on Thursday.

The committee said afterwards that pasta prices were “already showing the first indications, albeit weak, of a decline”. [decrease]indicating that the cost of pasta will drop significantly in the coming months.” And she promised to continue monitoring prices to protect consumers.

It may sound fusilli to some, but the high price of pasta is no laughing matter in Italy.

The average Italian consumed nearly 51 pounds of pasta last year, says David Ortega, a food economist and associate professor at Michigan State University.

“To say pasta is a staple in Italy is an understatement,” he told NPR by email. “It’s part of the country’s cultural fabric; their national identity. So, when pasta prices go up, especially this big, people notice, it’s a big deal!”

But rising food prices are not limited to Italy. In fact, says Ortega, federal data shows that the average price of spaghetti and pasta actually rose the most in the United States last year.

So why aren’t Americans terrified of pasta? Ortega has some theories.

For starters, Americans eat much less of it, averaging just 19 pounds per capita last year. And while the US has been struggling with rising food prices, those concerns and headlines tend to focus more on groceries in general.

He writes, “Unlike Italy, which has a strong affinity for pasta, or Mexico, where cornflakes are a staple, the United States has no specific staple food.” “We are a melting pot of different cultures and cuisines, so there is no unique food item or staple that really sets us apart. We just love food, so when the price of food goes up, as it has, people feel it.”

While it may sound cheesy, there are lessons the rest of the world can learn from the ordeal of Italian pasta.

Why are prices going up?

Some consumer advocates in Italy have accused pasta producers of raising prices to increase their profits.

Coldiretti, Italy’s largest agricultural association, says the price of durum wheat – the main ingredient in Italian pasta – has fallen by 30% since May 2022, arguing there is “little justification” for higher retail prices.

Companies blame inflation and supply chain issues to raise production costs. A spokesperson for Unione Italiana Food, which represents food producers, told CNN that retail prices are affected by higher energy, packaging and logistics costs.

There is no single reason why pasta prices are so high, according to Michigan State University Ortega. He points to a combination of factors, including ongoing supply chain disruptions due to the COVID pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“Add to that the effects of climate change, bird flu, and changes in consumer behavior, and you have a perfect storm of factors driving food price hikes, including pasta prices,” he adds.

In fact, global prices of food commodities such as grains and vegetable oils hit new records in 2022, according to the United Nations.

Ortega notes that the actual ingredients in pasta on supermarket shelves represent “a fraction of the total costs.” And while wheat prices are down from last summer’s highs, it takes time for those lower costs to work their way down the supply chain and onto price labels.

“Food prices tend to be flat — they go up quickly but take longer to come down,” he says.

Pasta isn’t the only food staple getting more expensive in Italy, let alone other parts of the world.

Ortega notes that food prices in Italy have gone up 12.1% in April compared to the previous year. In contrast, he says, the country’s average food price inflation rate for the five years leading up to COVID-19 was about 2%.

What do you see the United States?

Ortega says that many countries in Europe have been experiencing a double-digit rise in food prices for several months, which has also happened in the United States in recent years.

And while food prices have begun to fall, they are still 7.7% higher than they were a year ago, according to April data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Pasta was not immune from inflation: Ortega says the price of spaghetti and pasta in the US rose nearly 20% in April compared to the same month a year ago, From $1.22 to $1.46 per pound.

But this didn’t cause quite as much a stir as the egg price hike earlier this year, which was mainly due to a massive outbreak of bird flu.

Egg prices jumped monthly beginning in the fall, with the average price of a dozen first-class eggs rising from $2.90 in September to $4.82 at its peak in January.

Ortega says he is now watching the prices of cereals and bakery products, as there have been “significant increases in this category for a while.” US Bureau of Labor Statistics data for April shows that these products rose 12.4% over the same period last year.

He is hopeful that the rate of price increases will start to slow, though there is one big caveat.

“There are signs that inflationary pressures are beginning to abate,” says Ortega. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that these nutrients are declining, just that the price hike is beginning to moderate.”

What can he do?

Italy’s pasta problem highlights the important role food plays in our daily lives and cultural fabric, says Brian Hitchcock, chief science and technology officer at the Institute of Food Technologists.

He also stresses the need to better anticipate and mitigate supply disruptions, which he says are becoming more frequent and severe.

“While current pasta price inflation is complex and there is an ongoing debate about the underlying root causes, the past few years have shown that building more resilient supply chains is an urgent need,” Hitchcock told NPR via email.

In fact, he adds, they required “continued focus” on this work, which includes sourcing alternative ingredients, reformulating products and adjusting manufacturing practices.

Hitchcock points to egg prices in the United States as an example.

As NPR reported, rising egg costs in recent years have led companies to create all kinds of alternatives—from freeze-drying to plant-based products—with lower costs and increased sales.

No word yet on what this all means for zoodles.

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