MILAN (AP) — When it comes to soaring pasta prices, Italians shout: Basta!
They’ve had enough after the cost of every Italian table’s staple food rose by twice the rate of inflation. A consumer advocacy group is calling for a week-long nationwide pasta strike from June 22 after the government in Rome held a crisis meeting last month and decided not to intervene on prices.
“The macaroni strike is to see if keeping pasta on the shelves will lower prices, in the great Anglo-Saxon tradition of boycotting products,” said Furio Truzzi, group president, Assoutenti. “The price of pasta is absolutely out of proportion to the production costs.”
Food prices rose more sharply in Europe than in other advanced economies – from the United States to Japan – due to rising energy and labor costs and the impact of the Russian war in Ukraine. This is despite food costs falling for months from record highs, including wheat for flour used to make pasta.
Stores and suppliers have been accused of “greed”, but economists say retail profits have held steady and the problem comes down to the higher cost of food production.
Feeling the pressure, some European governments have capped commodity prices or pushed for deals with grocery stores to cut costs, which is popular with the public but can actually make food prices worse.
Shoppers like Noée Borey, a 26-year-old who does grocery shopping at a chain store in Paris, said she was all for setting caps on certain foods to help workers and low-income students.
She buys less meat and opts for less expensive groceries.
“Inevitably, everything I buy is up 20%, whether it’s butter or berries,” Borey said. “I no longer buy cherries because they cost 15 euros per kilo” (about 8 dollars per pound).
The French government has struck a three-month deal with supermarket chains to cut prices on hundreds of staples and other foods, which is set to be extended through the summer. Britain – where food inflation has hit 45-year highs – is considering a similar move.
Countries such as Hungary, with the highest food inflation in the European Union, and Croatia have imposed price controls on products such as cooking oil, certain cuts of pork, wheat flour and milk.
The Italian government says it will strengthen price monitoring by working more closely with the country’s 20 regions, but will not impose such limits.
Spain avoided price controls but abolished all value added tax on essential goods and halved the tax on cooking oil and pasta to 5%.
The measures come as food banks see growing demand in some countries.
“Things are not getting better, they are getting worse for people,” said Helen Barnard of the Trussell Trust, a charity that runs more than half of food banks in the UK.
Spending far more on essentials like milk, pasta and fresh vegetables to “supplement” donations received from supermarkets is a struggle for Anna Sjovorr-Packham, who runs several community pantries serving groceries to reduced price to some 250 south London families.
“Although the demand from families has not increased enormously, the cost has increased, and it has been very difficult to bear,” she said.
Prices for food and non-alcoholic beverages actually fell in Europe, from 17.5% in the 20-nation eurozone in March to a still-painful 15% in April. It comes as energy prices – key to growing and transporting what we eat – have fallen from record highs last year. But economists say it will take several months before prices in stores stabilize.
By comparison, food prices in the United States rose 7.7% in April from a year earlier, 8.2% in Japan and 9.1% in Canada. They reached 19% in the UK
The numbers play on expectations that the European Central Bank will raise interest rates again this week to counter inflation, while the US Federal Reserve is expected to ignore a hike.
In Europe, turning to price controls plays on voters, who receive constant reminders of inflation every time they hit the checkout counter, said Neil Shearing, chief economist at Capital Economics Group. But he said such changes should be reserved for cases of supply shocks, such as war.
Such controls could actually worsen food inflation by increasing buyer demand but discouraging new supply, he said.
“The current food price shock does not justify such an intervention,” Shearing said.
While pasta remains one of the most affordable items in many grocery carts, the symbolism is hitting the Italian psyche hard and comes as families absorb higher prices in everything from sugar to rice, in through olive oil and potatoes.
Italian families of four spend an average of 915 euros ($984) more per year on groceries, an increase of almost 12%, for a total of 7,690 euros per year, according to Assoutenti. A full third of Italians have reduced their spending on groceries, according to SWG pollsters, and almost half shop at discount stores.
But even the discounts aren’t what they used to be, and it’s harder for retirees.
“Before, you could get two packets (of pasta) for 1 euro,” said Carlo Compellini, a pensioner who shopped in central Rome. “Now with 2 euros you get three packs.”
Inflation is putting small indulgences out of reach for many, creating a new divide between haves and have-nots.
The recent opening of a Sacher cafe in Trieste, an Italian city whose Austro-Hungarian roots are evident in its stately architecture, led the mayor to a much-derided response reminiscent to many of an offbeat remark attributed to Marie Antoinette.
Asked about complaints that a slice of Vienna’s famous chocolate cake was overpriced at almost 10 euros, Mayor Roberto Dipiazza replied: “If you have the money, go away. If you don’t, watch.
AP reporters 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 contributed.