Updated: Thursday, 05 December 2013 23:50 | By Agence France-Presse

Italian farmers take pigs to parliament in food imports protest

Italian farmers brought pigs to parliament on Thursday in an unusual Christmas season protest against foreign food imports used to make classic Italian products such as pasta, mozzarella cheese and prosciutto ham.

Italian farmers take pigs to parliament in food imports protest

Pigs are pictured in front of the Italian parliament in Rome on December 5, 2013, during an unusual Christmas season protest against foreign food imports used to make classic Italian products

Farmers also set up a picket at a border point in the Alps, inspecting incoming trucks carrying foodstuffs like Lithuanian pork, German mozzarella and Austrian wheat that they said are eventually sold as Italian.

In a campaign entitled "The Battle for Christmas: Choose Italy", the farmers' union Coldiretti said that around 33 percent of food products sold in Italy and exported abroad are made using foreign raw materials.

"Our farms are collapsing!" said Augusto Musardo, 23, a wheat and olive farmer from Lecce in southern Italy, among the hundreds protesting outside parliament in Rome next to a banner reading "Stop the Swindles".

"The government should introduce more transparent labelling and block these foreign imports," he said.

Coldiretti said two out of three hams sold as "Made in Italy" were in fact produced using non-Italian pork and it has accused the country's biggest prosciutto maker, Parmacotto, of tripling pork imports over the past year.

But the company immediately denied the charges, with a spokesperson telling AFP it had not increased imports "by a single kilo" and adding: "Parmacotto uses raw material bought in Italy for 100 percent of its needs."

Coldiretti has also said a third of Italian pasta is made with wheat from abroad, half of classic Italian mozzarella is made with foreign milk and rennet and half the olive oil in Italy is made with foreign olives.

Coldiretti also issued a food manifesto asking the government to strengthen laws on labelling, ensure public subsidies only reach Italian farmers and publish detailed figures on imported food products.

Hams and cheeses were strung up at the protest in a symbolic hanging and a litter of piglets was set up in a small enclosure outside parliament.

Agriculture Minister Nunzia De Girolamo supported the protesters, saying that the defence of genuine Italian products could be "a way out of the crisis" and accusing "speculators of tricking consumers".

But the Italian employers' union Confindustria accused Coldiretti of following "a protectionist logic" and said the minister's words were "disconcerting", and argued in defence of the principle of free movement of goods inside the European Union at the centre of the dispute.

Coldiretti said 36,000 farmers have lost their jobs since 2007.

"Eight thousand of those jobs were in the pig farming sector alone -- the equivalent of a large industrial firm. A country in crisis like ours cannot afford it," Coldiretti head Roberto Moncalvo said at the protest.

Stefano Bellucci, a local councillor from Guardea in central Italy, said pork imports from other parts of Europe had hit his small town particularly hard.

"These imports are out of control. The effect has been violent for us," said Bellucci, 35, wearing the Italian flag band across his chest used by local officials.

He said Italians preparing their Christmas banquets should "avoid big names and buy from small farms".

"The labelling is misleading. It's 'Made in Italy' but only relatively speaking," he said.

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