Italy’s economic strength lies in its vibrant agricultural sector, which encompasses the processing and manufacturing of goods by small and medium-sized family-owned firms. This distinctive approach has made Italy a net agricultural importer, relying on imports for its raw materials and ingredients. In contrast, the country predominantly exports consumer products to the United States, while the United States mainly exports bulk commodities to Italy. This mutually beneficial trading relationship has resulted in U.S. agricultural exports to Italy reaching $1.1 billion in 2021, while U.S. imports from Italy amounted to $6.5 billion[^1^].
Italy’s agricultural prowess extends beyond trade statistics, as it is one of the largest agricultural producers and food processors in the European Union (EU). The agricultural sector contributes approximately 2% to the country’s GDP. Italy’s agricultural landscape is characterized by a clear divide between the north and south, reflecting the diverse agricultural activities within the EU. The northern part of Italy specializes in the production of grains, soybeans, meat, and dairy products. On the other hand, the southern region excels in cultivating fruits, vegetables, olive oil, wine, and durum wheat. Despite the challenges posed by its mountainous terrain, Italy manages to employ about 6% of its population in the agricultural sector, with an average farm size of 11 hectares[^1^].
Ensuring Food Safety and Compliance
Italy adheres to harmonized EU food laws and regulations, ensuring that all food products, whether produced domestically or imported, adhere to uniform requirements. The Ministry of Health takes primary responsibility for food safety, while the Ministry of Agriculture primarily oversees food production. Other ministries, such as the Ministry of Enterprises and Made in Italy, and the Ministry of Economy and Finance, also play a role in areas such as trade promotion, customs and duties, and standards and labeling[^1^].
Most imported food products enter the Italian market through brokers or specialized traders. Unlike their counterparts in northern Europe, Italian importers are typically smaller companies that import a broader range of products on a smaller scale. While price is an important factor in import purchase decisions, quality and novelty also influence the choices made by Italian importers. North American products often find their way into Italy indirectly through the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands or directly via air shipments[^1^].
Dynamic Sub-Sectors Shaping the Future
Food Processing Ingredients Sector
Italy’s food-processing industry thrives on its highly fragmented structure, with smaller companies gradually consolidating their position in the market. These key players adopt multichannel strategies, allowing them to offset losses in the food service sector by increasing sales in the retail channel. The COVID-19 pandemic influenced consumer behavior, with a gradual return to in-person work and activities leading to less time and inclination for home cooking and baking. The confectionery, snack bars, ice cream, and pastries segments experienced a surge in demand as people sought more convenient food options. Artisanal products remain highly valued in the packaged food market, with a preference for fresh over canned goods. At the same time, health-conscious trends have prompted the adoption of vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian alternatives, as well as “free-from” products and superfoods. Additionally, the pandemic reinforced the local food movement, with consumers showing solidarity with local producers and seeking locally sourced products[^1^].
Retail Food Sector
Italy’s retail food market is a diverse and lively landscape comprising hypermarkets, supermarkets, convenience stores, discount stores, specialized stores, traditional corner shops, and open-air markets. The concentration of supermarkets is highest in the northern part of the country, followed by the south and then the central region. Convenience stores and small supermarkets are typically situated in central areas of towns and cities. Hypermarkets and larger supermarkets are often found in suburban areas and on the outskirts of cities, often within large shopping malls[^1^].
Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Italy’s retail food sales reached $167.8 billion in 2021, marking a 2.9% increase from the previous year. Discount stores, hypermarkets, supermarkets, grocery retailers, and convenience stores all experienced sales growth, showcasing their resilience and adaptability. Retailers have been successful in implementing multi-channel strategies that blend online and in-store sales. This innovative approach includes options such as e-commerce shopping with home deliveries and the availability of in-store lockers for customers to collect their online orders. Delivery services also saw significant growth, with third-party delivery companies expanding their offerings to include a variety of products[^1^].
Hotel and Food Service Sector
Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Italy’s consumer foodservice sector experienced a remarkable growth of 23% in value sales in 2021 compared to the previous year. The hotel and food service sector in Italy is diverse and varied, comprising small establishments such as bed and breakfasts, youth hostels, camping facilities, resorts, and rural tourism. This dynamic sector offers a range of opportunities for both Italian and foreign businesses looking to cater to the diverse needs of travelers and locals alike[^1^].
The Italian market presents several opportunities for U.S. businesses. U.S. bulk and intermediate commodities serve as essential ingredients for the production of value-added Italian products that are subsequently re-exported. For example, high-quality durum wheat from North America is used extensively in pasta production. Other areas with growth potential include tree nuts, distilled spirits, food preparations, beer, sauces, dressings, and condiments. These sectors have shown promising growth in recent years, presenting opportunities for businesses to establish fruitful partnerships and tap into the thriving Italian market[^1^].
To explore these opportunities further, interested parties can refer to the following resources:
- Ministry of Agriculture, Food Sovereignty, and Forestry
- Ministry of Health
- U.S. Foreign Agricultural Service Italy: Office of Agricultural Affairs
- U.S. Embassy Rome
- Tel.: +39 06 4674 2396
- E-mail: [email protected][^1^]
Embracing its rich agricultural heritage and adapting to changing consumer needs, Italy’s agricultural sector continues to be a driving force in the country’s economy. Whether it’s the allure of traditional artisanal products or the convenience of modern retail experiences, Italy’s agricultural landscape offers a captivating blend of tradition and innovation.
[^1^]: BICO: Italy – Agricultural Sector