Coronavirus in Italy: Saving cheese to save livelihoods

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Italy was the first Western democracy to be pummeled by the coronavirus.

The country shut down all nonessential industries and placed strict peacetime limits on personal freedoms in an effort to save lives.

Nicola Bertinelli, the president of the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium, is working to ensure that the livelihoods of thousands of Italian farmers and producers dependent on the cheese-making process are not collateral damage.

“The real Parmigiano-Reggiano is made in only 330 small cheese factories collecting milk from 2,860 small dairy farms in a small piece of land in Italy,” Bertinelli told Fox News. “So it's a really unique product made only with three ingredients: raw milk, rennet, and salt. And with that unique process, the COVID crisis has caused staffing shortages.”

In an exclusive interview with Fox News, Bertinelli explained that being short-staffed is particularly challenging because the Parmigiano-Reggiano they make today is produced with the same intricate craftsmanship and technique that was used nearly 1,000 years ago.

“We have to milk cows every day to make Parmigiano-Reggiano,” said Bertinelli. “From an operational point of view, the crisis has changed the personal relationships between people and restricted movement. Only specific employees can come into the farm to collect the milk, and everybody has to adhere to strict spatial distancing to avoid contamination.”

Bertinelli added that the Consortium also brought in a network of retired cheesemakers and former production workers to help deal with staff shortages during the pandemic.

According to Bertinelli, Parmigiano-Reggiano must be produced in the area of origin. That includes the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and parts of Mantua and Bologna--all areas that have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

Bertinelli told Fox News that he is committed to spreading awareness for the Parmigiano-Reggiano industry because he knows what’s at stake.

“We must support the 50,000 people that are involved in the Parmigiano-Reggiano industry,” said Bertinelli. “Parmigiano-Reggiano is made in a hillside of Italy, and without Parmigiano Reggiano this hillside will not even have the people there to take care of the land. In time of crisis, we believe we have to roll up our sleeves, and not lose heart, and I'm sure that together we will succeed.”

Emily DeCiccio is a reporter and video producer for Fox News Digital Originals. Tweet her @EmilyDeCiccio.