Tomato Industry and Parma Experimental Station, SSICA. Red alert. #CleanSpades

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The Stazione Sperimentale per l’Industria delle Conserve Alimentari (SSICA), in Parma and Angri, Salerno, Italy, has been working alongside the Italian tomato industry for 99 years.

A Report feature ‘
Canned goods and oxen in your own country
‘, broadcast on Rai3 on 19.4.21, brought to light serious anomalies in SSICA’s management in recent years, raising doubts about procurement and budgets.

The red alert, however, concerns the discontinuation of scientific research that enabled the Experimental Station to identify with certainty the origin of tomatoes used in canned goods. #CleanSpades.

SSICA, 99 years of history

SSICA, the Stazione Sperimentale per l’Industria delle Conserve Alimentari (Experimental Station for the Food Canning Industry), was created in 1922-as a public body, like the other seven Experimental Stations in Italy (1)-with the function of promoting the technological progress of the Italian food canning industry. An applied research institution that has always provided support to the processing tomato supply chain and the technological processes for its processing, which has led Italy to the third place in the world (€ 4.7 billion turnover 2020 of canned ‘red’ and legumes Made in Italy. Source ANICAV).

In 2003 SSICA was transformed into a public economic entity. Privatization affected only the staff, since then hired no longer by public competition (with research sector contracts) but by direct hiring (with private contracts, Food Industry CCNL). In May 2010, then-Minister Giulio Tremonti transferred the management of the 8 Experimental Stations to the Chambers of Commerce (CCIAs). SSICA was thus transformed into a Special Company of the Parma CCIA.

SSICA, the Foundation

SSICA was then transformed into the ‘National Research Foundation for International Research’ on 7.3.16. The functions remain unchanged:

– Fundamental research, industrial research and experimental development in the applied science of food preservation production, and

– Dissemination of research results through publications, technology transfer, training, consulting, and services to industry enterprises.

Operating profits must be reinvested in research activities, dissemination of their results or teaching. The president, appointed by the Parma Chamber of Commerce (CCIA), participates in the Board of Directors (BoD) with one director appointed by him and 3 directors appointed by Confindustria.

SSICA, the travail of research

In 2018, the Confindustria-driven SSICA board of directors appointed a manager with a stormy track record in the Veneto Region (2,3), Tiziano Baggio, as general manager. Who, as soon as he took office, abolished the internal Scientific Committee (composed of the Institute’s researchers and technicians). In 2019, Titian Baggio reorganized the institute with an organizational chart that was not approved by the BOD.

The Department of Vegetable Preserves was being taken away from the coordination of Antonio Trifirò, an internationally renowned researcher who is credited with developing the only analytical method capable of tracing the origin of tomatoes used in preserves. (4) Entrusting its direction to a culinary science graduate with a bachelor’s degree, Luca Sandei. The newly established external scientific committee, in turn, has not provided any input to innovation in research activities.

Research and analysis tomato origin, innovation knocked out

Starting in 2012, SSICA’s Plant Conservation Department-under the leadership of Antonio Trifirò and thanks to a grant from the Cariparma Foundation-had begun to study an innovative method of analysis aimed at identifying the origin of tomatoes. Characterization of the soils of four major growing areas (Italy, Spain, China, and USA-California), by analysis of the contents of 26 minerals present there, allowed the respective matrices to be found in tomato products. After 4 years of research-with analysis of 183 official samples of canned tomatoes with known origin, taken in different countries-researchers validated the analytical protocol in two peer-reviewed scientific publications.

However, the research, celebrated at its inception with press conferences and television reports, has had no operational follow-up. No request for analysis came from the industrial side. In 2020, a professional organization (PO) in the canning industry, a contributor to SSICA, requested investigations into the origin of tomatoes in some samples of Made in Italy canned goods taken from the British market.
However, Luca Sandei and Titian Baggio-after consulting the relevant advisor and the trade association ANICAV, (National Association of Industrial Vegetable Preserves, Confindustria)-offered negative feedback. Alleging that the innovative analytical method had to be ‘consolidated’. ‘Red’ alert?

SSICA, scientific activity KO

Tiziano Baggio’s management, under confindustrial and chamber of commerce direction, has emptied the ‘National Research Foundation for International Research’ of the scientific activity that represents, according to current EU and Italian rules, its primary institutional function. Recording a systematic squandering of the human, instrumental, image and economic assets of the institution. At the expense of the nearly 7.5 million euros in contributions paid annually to SSICA by Italian industries and cooperatives in the sector.

Confirming the above, laboratory instruments used to analyze the origin of tomatoes in canned goods-one of which is unique in Italy-have been set aside. With serious doubts about the suitability of maintenance and testing relegated to individuals of uncertain qualification. Also discontinued in 2020 was the historic magazine Industria Conserve, which had always been used to disseminate to taxpayers the scientific results of research carried out by the Experimental Station. In its stead, an informative, parish gazette-style newsletter was introduced.

SSICA, crazy expenses and other anomalies

SSICA director Tiziano Baggio-with the endorsement of the board of directors, except to oust president Andrea Zanlari from any decision-making-has since addressed ‘crazy spending’, including multimillion-dollar renovation works and staff hiring. The Board of Auditors reported several anomalies in the management and operation of the entity. These include the failure to draft the regulations (of organization and operation, administration, and accounting) of the SSICA and the granting of powers to Director General Baggio in excess of the requirements of the Civil Code and the bylaws.

The SS ICA board of auditors – in the absence of feedback from the general manager and the Board of Directors – therefore approached the prefect of Parma on 26.1.20. Who, after a brief investigation, enjoined the agency to adopt the missing regulations. But the regulations adopted by the BoD on 10.6.20 were found to be illegitimate, and the prefect – in the absence of response to requests to amend them, in the face, moreover, of the risk of invalidity of the financial statements closed on 31.12.19 – ordered the dissolution of the SSICA BoD. Entrusting ex-prefect of Genoa Fiamma Spena with the role of extraordinary commissioner, with a mandate to provide for this (prefectural decree 28.10.20, see Appendix).

SSICA, commissariat and unresolved troubles

The extraordinary commissioner – in the five months since her appointment and despite the help of consultants and deputy commissioners appointed by her and lavishly paid by SSICA and its members-she has still failed to adopt the aforementioned regulations and ‘Restoring the proper functioning of the Foundation’, as ordered by the prefect. The task is certainly complex, especially for those who come from far-flung backgrounds in science. So are the bureaucrats but also the ‘managers‘ who have been entrusted with the management of SSICA from 2008 to the present. Indeed, a research institution should come to be led by people of scientific depth and not by bureaucrats or economic experts.

The unresolved troubles of the Experimental Station for the Food Preserving Industry-for 99 years at the service of industries and the system-Country thus go beyond its existence and the contribution required from its members, whose fees contribute about 70 percent of the institution’s revenue. Rather, one must look at its effectiveness and efficiency with respect to public research objectives in strategic sectors such as vegetable and animal preserves (hams and salamis, fish preserves). And wonder why his scientific work has been boycotted by conflicting management between chambers of commerce and confindustrial associations.

Interim conclusions

In the era of Horizon, Green Deal and Farm to Fork, one of the excellences that has represented research in food processing and preservation nationally and internationally for a century could offer concrete support for resilience, with a focus on SMEs, and ecological transition. Following in the footsteps of other national research foundations run by researchers, such as the Italian Institute for Technology (IIT) in Genoa, which was in fact headed from 2005 to 2014 by now minister Roberto Cingolani.

Media attention focuses on the body’s mismanagement, with profusion of malfeasance, at a time in history when it is ex lege dependent on the chamber and industry systems in obvious conflict. The result is an institutional and economic crisis that could also lead to its liquidation. The question remains whether the real problem is the tax-which no one is ever happy to pay, except to then benefit from the public system, as pandemic teaches-or whether it is service excellence instead. Proper management, which is now undoubtedly lacking, could solve both.

PS: red alert (tomato)

Jean Baptiste Malet, author of the book ‘Rotten Red‘-in his interview with Striscia la notizia on Channel 5 on 4/26/18-reported that Italy is the leading importer of Chinese tomato derivatives. (6) Italian firms from the rest have brought machinery and know-how to China to process processing tomatoes for industry.

The French journalist reports finding low-quality production in Asia, use of agrochemicals banned in Europe, and child labor in tomato picking. His book, which has been translated into 8 languages, was withdrawn by Italian publisher Piemme (Mondadori Group) as a result of pressure and subsequent agreement with Giaguaro S.p.A. of Sarno (SA), which is mentioned there. (7)

What is certain is that if the SSICA resumes functioning as it should, simple analyses of canned tomatoes on the market will suffice to prevent scandals like the one that recently occurred in Petti and to counter other frauds that have gone unpunished to date (8,9). One possible explanation?

#CleanSpades.

Dario Dongo

ANNEX Decree of the Prefect of Parma 28.10.20

Notes

(1) The eight Experimental Stations in Italy deal respectively with:
– paper, paperboard and pulp (SSCCP),
– glass (SSV),
– fuels (SSC),
– canned food industry (SSICA),
– leather and tanning materials industry (SSIP),
– silk (SSS),
– oils and fats industries (SSOG),
– Citrus essences and derivatives industries (SSEA)
(2) Marco Bonet. Conflict of interest, Baggio speaks: “I’m taking my case to the magistrates.” Veneto Courier. 5/20/15, https://corrieredelveneto.corriere.it/veneto/notizie/politica/2015/20-maggio-2015/conflitto-d-interessi-parla-baggio-porto-mio-caso-magistrati-2301407670389.shtml

(3) Appointments and whispers from Venetian palaces about super executives. The Vicenza Courier. 12/16/15, https://www.ilgiornaledivicenza.it/oltre-vicenza/veneto/nomine-e-sussurridai-palazzi-veneti-sui-super-dirigenti-1.4512170

(4) Dario Dongo. Preserves, an analysis is enough to reveal the origin of tomatoes. GIFT(Great Italian Food Trade). 6/26/20, https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/innovazione/conserve-basta-un-analisi-a-rivelare-l-origine-del-pomodoro

(5) Contributions and management: Report’s eye on Parma’s Ssica. The Republic, Parma. 23.4.21, https://parma.repubblica.it/cronaca/2021/04/23/news/report_ssica-297697444/

(6) Jean Baptiste Malet. L’Empire de l’or rouge (Fayard, 2017). Original French-language text for sale from FNAC at https://livre.fnac.com/a10307817/Jean-Baptiste-Malet-L-Empire-de-l-or-rouge.

The documentary The Empire of red Gold (Xavier Deleu & Jean-Baptiste Malet, 2017) is available on Vimeo. V. https://vimeo.com/ondemand/theempireofredgold

(7) Mark Williams. It’s Banned Books Week. Spare a thought for a French book banned in Italy this year. The news publishing standard. 9/24/18, https://thenewpublishingstandard.com/2018/09/24/its-banned-books-week-spare-a-thought-for-a-french-book-banned-in-italy-this-year/

(8) Dario Dongo. Petti canned tomatoes, trade fraud. Maxi-seizure of RACs. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 4/26/21, https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/consum-attori/conserve-di-pomodoro-petti-frode-in-commercio-maxi-sequestro-dei-rac

(9) Piennolo DOP tomatoes with alien juice? Lawyer Dario Dongo answers.. FARE(Food & Agriculture Requirements). 5.7.20, https://www.foodagriculturerequirements.com/archivio-notizie/domande-e-risposte/pomodorini-del-piennolo-dop-con-succo-alieno-risponde-l-avvocato-dario-dongo