Cheese Manufacturing in the Twentieth Century

The Italian Experience in an International Context

by Rita Maria Michela d'Errico (Volume editor) Claudio Besana (Volume editor) Renato Ghezzi (Volume editor)
©2017 Edited Collection 408 Pages


Since the end of the nineteenth century the dairy sectors of some industrialised European and American countries have experienced a phase of growth that took place at a different rate and in a different manner in each country, and which was made possible by the availability of raw materials and a more widespread knowledge of scientific and technological methods. The sector’s expansion was favoured by a revolution in transport networks, the beginning of globalisation in world markets and, decisively, by advances in packaging and refrigeration techniques. Italy in particular, despite its low availability of raw materials compared to other countries, rose quickly throughout the last century to become one of the largest international producers and exporters of cheese, especially of high value PDO cheeses. What factors were behind this achievement and which were the strengths and weaknesses of the sector during the twentieth century? The articles presented in this volume attempt to provide an answer to these questions from different points of view and using different interpretative approaches. The geographical range covered by these studies also reaches beyond Italy in order to look at other countries with relatively ancient dairy traditions. This comparative approach, although limited to just a few countries, is important in that it allows us to describe the evolution of a milk and dairy sector which has had such a large influence on the economic life of many regions in the Italian peninsula.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword. The Dairy and Agri-food Industries (Francesco Chiapparino)
  • Introduction (Claudio Besana / Rita d’Errico / Renato Ghezzi)
  • Part I. The experience of Different Nations during the Age of Globalization
  • Cheese-making in France at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century. A Spatially Diffuse, Complex and Unique Organization? (Claire Delfosse)
  • Switzerland’s Dairy Industry in the Twentieth Century. Small-scale Artisan Production Meets the Market Economy (Luigi Lorenzetti)
  • The Italian Dairy Industry between 1930 and 1970. Production and Organizational Structure (Claudio Besana)
  • The Influence of the European Institutions and Policies on the Italian Dairy Sector (Stefanella Stranieri / Paolo Tedeschi)
  • The Canadian Dairy Sector in the Twentieth Century. From Openness to Closure and Self-Sufficiency (Benoit Mario Papillon)
  • Contemporary Challenges of the Brazilian Dairy Industry (Hildete De Moraes Vodopives / Valter Galan)
  • New York State Cheese. Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Transformations (Julia Lapp)
  • Part II. Terroir, Typicality and Market Openness in the Dairy Sector
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese. The Industrialization of Typicality (Stefano Magagnoli)
  • Roquefort: a Large Company Creates its Territory (Sylvie Vabre)
  • The Production of Pecorino Cheese in the Roman Countryside from the End of the Nineteenth Century until the 1930s (Rita d’Errico)
  • Production and Processing of Sheep Milk in Sardinia (1950–2015) (Giuseppe Doneddu)
  • The Tuscan Ovine Milk Industry, 1950–2000. A Quantitative Analysis (Renato Ghezzi)
  • From Milan to Novara. Production and Sale of Gorgonzola Cheese in the Twentieth Century (Vanessa Pollastro)
  • Buffalo Mozzarella in Campania from Its Origin to the Twenty-First Century (Franca Pirolo)
  • Part III. Forms of Enterprise in Italy in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
  • The Modernization of the Dairy Industry in Italy in the Late Nineteenth Century. Social Dairies (Manuel Vaquero Piñeiro)
  • Enterprises, Trade and Industry in the Lombardy Dairy Sector. The Origins of Locatelli and Galbani (1860–1914) (Silvia A. Conca Messina)
  • The Rise and Decline of a Large Company: Polenghi Lombardo (Gianpiero Fumi)
  • The Multinationals and the Italian Agri-food Industries. The Dairy Sector (1974–1993) (Andrea M. Locatelli)
  • Abstracts and Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

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The Dairy and Agri-food Industries


Università Politecnica delle Marche

Food manufacturing is in many ways unlike other sectors. It was rarely at the forefront of industrial and technological innovations and, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was represented by a loose conglomerate embracing a wide range of manufacturing styles, covering all levels of participation within the secondary sector. Purely agricultural activities were at one end of this scale of participation, with products like vegetables, legumes and fruit, that required almost no processing, while at the other end were the “modern” industries born in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries during the age of technological innovation. The latter included manufacturers of chocolate and preserves, and the large market-dominating businesses made possible by the second industrial revolution, such as sugar manufacturers. The agricultural producers mentioned above constituted the foundation upon which a large part of the nineteenth-century food sector was built, and were themselves extremely varied in character: even pre-industrial economies like grain and oil production necessitated the use of mechanical equipment like mills and oil presses, thus involving a far greater use of processing structures than was the case for other sectors such as wine-making and dairy production, and therefore were far more dependent upon large-scale financial investments. Other processing techniques, for example those used in the manufacture of liquors, pasta, bread and pastries, should, however, be seen as urban rather than rural phenomena due to their artisan nature. We could go on expanding this list endlessly by, for example, looking at the varying influence of commercial activities within each sector of the food industry, thereby revealing their presence in the service sector along with the primary and secondary sectors, or we could expand the scope of our survey to encompass the extremely diverse world of small-scale growers whose produce was destined for the family table rather than the local market.

The vast heterogeneity of a sector comprising rural industries, artisans, small and medium sized factory producers, large oligopolies, sales-oriented companies and non-commercial domestic activities can to a certain extent explain the difficulties encountered by anyone wishing to construct a historical analysis of the food industry, and might account for the scarcity of ← 11 | 12 → such studies in a field that has so far been relatively unexplored by Italian and international economic historians. This is compounded by the fact that the sector has rarely been a prominent player within the manufacturing industry, or influenced its evolution. It never achieved the degree of relevance enjoyed by textile manufacturers during the medieval and early modern eras, nor has it ever held a leading position in the industrialization process of the Western world, as have steel, machinery and energy producers. Despite this, the food sector has always played an important role in the economy of Italy and other countries, and not only during the pre-industrial era when it was intimately connected to the agricultural world through which it constituted a substantial portion of all manufacturing activities. Industry surveys reveal that, during the first half of the twentieth century, its 300,000 to 400,000 employees represented around 10–12% of Italy’s entire secondary sector workforce, after which it gradually declined to around half that percentage during the second half of the century, although it was still employing around 250,000 people. Predictably, its share of industry profits saw a similar reduction, falling from an estimated 17–29% during the pre-fascist era until it stabilized around the 8–11% mark at current prices, where it has remained from the 1950s up until today.1 Along with its vast dimensions and large workforce, the importance of the food industry’s role in the national economy is also due to its close (although not always harmonious) relationship with the agricultural sector. This relationship was crucial both for the agricultural and for the food industry, and changed profoundly during each phase of recent Italian history. Historically dominated by the agricultural sector’s position as by far the largest economy in Italy, it changed around the 1950s-1960s, when the economic boom and mass migration from the countryside led to the success of industrial foods, perceived as being far from − and in fact often detached from − the national rural productions. The refusal of traditional diets, with their burden of poverty and malnutrition, in the name of the well-being guaranteed by modern, healthy and rational eating, went together with the crisis in large parts of the Italian agriculture, and its lack of integration with the new food industries emerged in the years of the economic miracle. In the last decades, then, this relationship has experienced a further evolution, as a result, first, of the revival of rural traditions linked to the rediscovery of the peasant world and the emergence of environmentalist concerns, and, later, of the recent economic crisis and the renewed importance of agriculture facing the crisis of the mature industrial sectors.

In the light of the situation described above, with its inherent conjectures, grey areas and unknowns, the effort to provide a reconstruction of the evolution of the dairy industry assumes a special significance. Although some grey areas remain in the evolution of Italian and international production of milk derivatives, this work provides a precious contribution to the field by ← 12 | 13 → describing the forms, trends and procedures of a sector that until now has only partially been studied. With a workforce that varied between 20,000 and 30,000 employees according to figures compiled by twentieth-century industry surveys (excluding the 1937 survey, which is notorious for its unreliable exaggerations),2 the milk and dairy sector represents a medium to large portion of the Italian food industry, outnumbered by the highly fragmented bread-making sector (with 30,000 to 50,000 employees between 1911 and 1981), by the milling sector during the first half of the twentieth century (around 40–50,000 employees until 1961), and by tinned vegetable manufacturing in the second half (30–45,000), while its size was comparable with that of other large sectors like pasta, olive oil and the baking industry. It was also a mid-range sector in terms of energy consumption and, in terms of average company sizes, more or less in line with the relatively small food industry businesses (on average 4–10 employees in each company, not including raw milk production, compared to 3–7 employees in the food sector as a whole between 1911 and 1981), although it should be noted that these figures represent an average value taken from a highly diversified range of businesses both in the case of milk and dairy production and in that of the food industry as a whole. Due to this relatively mid-range position, the dairy industry represents a microcosm of the food manufacturing sector as a whole and of the economic modernization of Italy between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and offers, not least through the studies contained in this volume, an excellent opportunity to reveal the underlying patterns of these larger systems. It may be worthwhile, then, to take a closer look at some of those patterns and to identify which parts of the dairy sector’s history we might see as particularly relevant.

One of the main issues worth considering is undoubtedly that of the dairy sector’s industrialization, along with the speed at which it took place and how it was managed. This was essentially a passage from a traditional rural industry that was practically a by-product of agricultural (and livestock) activities to a manufacturing system that had grown independent from the primary sector and had assumed the characteristics of a modern industry in terms of technology, management and investment. In some areas, like Lombardy, the dairy sector took part in Italy’s earliest phase of industrialization during the late nineteenth century, which Luciano Cafagna described as “the first coat of paint”,3 and which was to destined to become consolidated during the Giolitti era (1901–11). Provinces like Lodi, Melzo and others saw the introduction of purpose-built mechanical equipment by dairy producers and, as a consequence, the formation of complex investment and commercial strategies. A decisive factor in the move away from the rural dairy industry, whose traditional farmhouses had until then held pride of ← 13 | 14 → place within one of the world’s richest agricultural sectors, was the rise of scientific institutes like the “royal experimental institutes”, that contributed decisively to the modernization of agricultural technologies. Another important factor was the role played by a new class of local businessmen, many of whom had aristocratic roots. Cooperative structures also played a prominent role during this phase of modernization in the Po Valley at the turn of the twentieth century, although such structures were generally limited to milk production and were, overall, less influential than elsewhere, as in the wine-making sector, or among producers of fertilizers, who, despite not being directly involved in the food industry, were fully integrated within the agricultural world. This early phase of industrialization did not see the participation of the entire dairy sector, large parts of which continued for some time to maintain traditional dairy facilities and identify more closely with the rationale and management strategies of the livestock industry in the south of Italy and elsewhere. Once-promising traditional occupations like that of Calabrian goat herders began to experience a decline in Southern Italy and bordering regions during the inter-war period, while other specialized professions came to the fore, including the producers of Pecorino romano cheese in Latium and Sardinia, foreshadowing the strong period of growth that would take place in the post-war manufacturing industry.

Large-scale modernization of the sector took place during the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s, when industrial manufacturing techniques were introduced in many parts of the country with the updating of pre-existing facilities and the appearance of new phenomena. This new era was exemplified by the commercially successful regions of Parma and Reggio Emilia, with unique organizational structures based on a territorial consortia system and their innovative investment in brands and advertising, and by businesses in the Tuscan Maremma, which managed to become successful in a hitherto backward and underdeveloped area. Despite the continued existence of troubled and problematic areas, not least with regard to the uncertain future of many specialized professions in Southern Italy, the modernization of this sector seems, through different timescales and methods, to have taken form. The relationship between agriculture (and livestock farming) and industry also took on a distinct form within this modernization process, and it is this relationship that allows us to understand the nature and limits of the momentous transformations that engulfed Italy’s economy and its society in the third quarter of the twentieth century.4 In areas where the pace of local industrialization went forward hand in hand with the primary sector, as in Southern Lombardy and Emilia Romagna, the 1950s and 1960s migration from the countryside was not, unlike in many other parts of the country, accompanied by a crisis in the agricultural sector. ← 14 | 15 → The Po Valley region benefited from the presence of rural economies that, to varying degrees, were already the wealthiest and most advanced in Italy, along with an entrepreneurial and industrial dynamism that was lacking elsewhere. Nonetheless, the aforementioned cases of Pecorino production in Latium, Sardinia and Tuscany, and that of other cheeses manufactured in mountain areas like Fontina and Asiago, demonstrate that patterns of development were not necessarily predetermined, and that the general north-south imbalance (or the disadvantages of areas traditionally backward) could in some cases be subverted.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning the contradictions that have characterized recent developments, with the globalization process of the 1990s and the last decade’s long recession, which are analyzed in this volume and subjected to new and revealing studies. There seem to be at least three separate factors underlying the current situation. The first of these was the increasingly central role played by political forces in the application of those regulations, restrictions and opportunities that defined the market within which the sector found itself operating. The decisive influence of political support and protection in the primary sector had, in reality, emerged on an international scale by the 1930s and was present in many countries, although to varying degrees, since the Great Depression of the late nineteenth century. After the Second World War, and especially in Europe, this political influence solidified its dominant position through incentives, subsidies and EU legislation as well as the negotiations and lobbying activities that helped to define them, allowing it to shape the destiny of entire regional and national manufacturing compartments. From the 1990s, regulation took on an enhanced role thanks to the acceleration of the integration process of global markets: a process which is still under way, increasing the already high level of uncertainty within the food and agriculture sector, as demonstrated by the discussions that began in 2013 on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Despite the complexity of this new situation and its inherent obstacles, especially since the beginning of the financial crisis of 2007–8, Italy’s food manufacturers have fared well, particularly when one considers that in the last ten years theirs is one of the few segments of the national economy to have maintained, and with time improved, its position in international markets. This success is all the more impressive when seen in the context of the difficulties faced by the Italian economy as a whole, weighed down as it was by structural inadequacies like low productivity growth and heavy financial obligations. It also disproved the dire predictions at the end of the twentieth century about the future of the food industry itself when, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, it seemed overwhelmed by the deep crisis that had hit Italy’s industrial sector. In actual fact, the growth that appeared during the economic boom years was in some ways limited. The relatively wide-ranging industrialization of the food sector between the late 1950s and the 1960s was, in fact, followed by a period of difficulty during ← 15 | 16 → the following two decades, along with a phase of intense restructuring. A solid business and manufacturing base emerged from this chain of events, which was well equipped to satisfy domestic demand, although in the majority of cases its infrastructure was poor, limiting its readiness to meet the challenges of international competition on markets which, as already noted, were becoming increasingly interdependent. The dairy sector was fully involved in these events, and experienced a comprehensive phase of industrialization during the economic boom years while being badly affected by a change in economic trends during the 1970s, and was unable to expand into foreign markets. Quite the opposite took place towards the end of that delicate phase when, in the 1980s, many dairy brands were acquired by global multinational food companies like Kraft, Danone and Nestlé (which had owned Locatelli since 1961), in a process that has continued to evolve right down to recent times with the creation of an Italian group as part of the French multinational Lactalis. It is striking that this fate has befallen the oldest part of the dairy sector, made up of companies from Lombardy whose modernization can be traced back, as we have seen, to the decades straddling the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Among these companies were famed Italian brands like Galbani and Invernizzi, while a similar fate affected Polenghi Lombardo, which was still Italian-owned but had changed hands during the 1990s between Federconsorzi, the Cragnotti-owned Cirio and Parmalat. The history of this latter company, Parmalat, is also significant. Although it originally operated in the packaged milk sector, it later expanded into the associated dairy products sector by acquiring Polenghi and other companies. Parmalat’s growth cycle, notwithstanding the legal scandals that have plagued the company,5 is in some ways emblematic of that experienced by Italy’s food industry throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Having occurred between the 1960s and the 2003 crash, Parmalat’s paradigm was representative both of the sectorial specialization some businesses adopted in their move towards multinational dimensions, for example Ferrero, Barilla and Ferruzzi, and of the limitations which in one way or another frustrated some of these attempts to compete in an international market dominated by global, multi-sector companies like Nestlé and Unilever.

The outcome of the growth cycle of the second half of the twentieth century, when the emergence of a modern and vibrant industrial sector was set against poor performance in the face of international competition and an inability to counteract acquisitions made by foreign multinationals with their own domestic investments, was met by the unexpected success of the Italian food and agriculture export sector and, in general, by the popularity of Italian foods despite the ongoing recession. Naturally, results like these cannot justify the kind of enthusiasm displayed at the 2015 Expò fair in Milan, or ← 16 | 17 → that generated by promotional campaigns: we need only remind ourselves that the last decade’s export figures for traditional products were unable to make up for the long-running trade deficit of Italy’s food and agricultural industry. Above all, the image of close adherence to natural and traditional manufacturing methods confronts the reality that only traditional products (including wine) that are produced with the support of modern technologies, a well-structured industry and substantial investments in marketing, that is to say a series of factors that are significantly alien to concepts of nature and tradition, are able to penetrate international markets and assume true economic significance. Nonetheless, the positive performance of the food sector is undeniable, both in its own right and in comparison with the rather disappointing performance in recent decades of the country’s economy as a whole. The dairy sector, on the other hand, has been involved in the majority of the processes spoken of above: it underwent widespread industrial renewal during the boom years, along with the survival of more antiquated methods and the dualism typical of Italy’s economy; it took part in the failed attempt to create multinational brands during the 1980s and 1990s, which was followed by a wave of foreign acquisitions; and, finally, it was at the center of the recent successes achieved by the Italian traditional foods sector and shared its strengths as well as its ambiguities. Furthermore, and with regard to the latter, cheese (just like wine, and unlike pasta for example) represents a traditional product that is not unique to Italy and is therefore subject to comparison and competition with producers from other countries, not least with those of France, as revealed by the international studies presented in this volume. The dairy sector, then, is the best place to start when attempting to understand the recent and future evolution of Italy’s food and agriculture sector and to determine whether and to what extent the current success of traditional products is a temporary phenomenon, the precursor of a new cycle of growth, or simply the next phase in the history of the food industry.

1 Ciocca, P., Ricchi per sempre? Una storia economica d’Italia (1796–2005), Torino, Bollati Boringhieri, 2007, p. 40.

2 Chiaventi R., “I censimenti industriali italiani 1911–1951: procedimenti di standardizzazione”, in Rivista di storia economica, 1987, IV.1, pp. 119–51.

3 Cafagna L., Dualismo e sviluppo nella storia d’Italia, Venezia, Marsilio, 1989, pp. 288 ff.

4 Sicca L., L’industria alimentare in Italia, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1977, pp. 92 ff.; Zamagni V., Dalla periferia al centro. La seconda rinascita economica dell’Italia, 1861–1990, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1993, pp. 442 ff.

5 Franzini G., Il crac Parmalat. Storia del crollo dell’impero del latte, Roma, Editori Riuniti, 2004; Sapelli G., Giochi proibiti. Enron e Parmalat, capitalismi a confronto, Milano, Bruno Mondadori, 2004.

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Claudio BESANA, Rita D’ERRICO, Renato GHEZZI*

Globally, around 20 million tons of cheese (excluding others cow’s milk derivatives) are produced each year, making the cheese industry the most profitable segment of the entire dairy sector. Western Europe and North America account for a large part of this figure, with around 70% of global production (Fig. 1). Similarly, these same areas represent a high proportion of sales and per capita consumption of cheese. Experts predict that the sector will continue to grow as the demand for cheese increases in developing countries,1 whereas they see the consumption of milk and butter as being in decline, especially in the more developed economies, following a trend that began some decades ago with changes in tastes and eating habits.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (June)
Enterprises, Trades and Industry Agri-food industry Milk industry Dairy industry and policies Common Agricultural Policy Typicality in the dairy sector
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 406 pp., 56 b/w fig., 46 tables.

Biographical notes

Rita Maria Michela d'Errico (Volume editor) Claudio Besana (Volume editor) Renato Ghezzi (Volume editor)

Claudio Besana is Associate Professor in Economic History at the faculty of Economics of the Catholic University in Milan, where he teaches Economic and Business history. His studies have focused on economic and social patterns in Italy and especially in Lombardy, from the 18th to the 20th century. Rita d’Errico is Associate Professor in Economic History at the Department of Business studies of Roma Tre University, where she teaches Economic history, Finance history, and Business history. Her research interests focus on analysis of banking and credit history, analysis of economic and social transformations in Italy and especially in Latium from the 18th to the 20th century. Renato Ghezzi is Assistant Professor in Economic History at the University "Magna Graecia" of Catanzaro where he teaches History of Economic Thought and History of Economic Analysis. His research mainly pertains to the 17th Century Sea Trade and the Modern Economy of Tuscany.


Title: Cheese Manufacturing in the Twentieth Century