Antonio Montoro Is the pharmaceutical technical director at an advanced therapy laboratory and associate professor at the Faculty of Pharmacy and Food Science at the University of Barcelona. He has more than 20 years of experience in the food safety sector and extensive knowledge about all things related to food quality. As a subject matter expert, Antonio shares with us the keys to marketing black truffle in a sector that has seen significant growth in recent years.
What does “food quality” mean?
When a product or service is of good quality, that means that it satisfies your expectations. There are two types of quality. First, there is non-negotiable or basic quality, which essentially means that your product is safe, can be put on the market and meets certain regulatory standards. Then, we have negotiable or distinctive quality. This is what makes you stand out from the competition, and it allows you to define yourself according to your product’s specific characteristics.
Why is “distinctive quality” becoming increasingly important?
Because consumers are becoming increasingly more responsible compared with a few years ago.
Organic farming has become a very good way of offering distinctive quality.
Organic production essentially means that we can now buy food products that have been produced according to very strict requirements set out in EU regulations, with an independent body that ensures compliance with these standards.
What is the main aim of organic farming?
The main guiding principle of organic farming is to guarantee food safety, of course, with the added positive contribution with respect to social responsibility.
How has this type of farming improved other sectors in recent years?
It has improved some sectors in quite a dramatic way. We have gone from wanting to produce as much cheap produce as possible to wanting to produce good quality in the quantities that are needed.
Can you give us an example?
In the wine sector, where production figures are still very high, producers are increasingly looking for production methods that are more selective. They are now less focused on volume and more focused on quality. This also has great benefits for the organoleptic quality of the product, like taste, smell, etc.
How might trufficulture benefit from organic farming?
Trufficulture has gone through numerous revolutions, such as mycorrhization, and has improved in areas like traceability and marketing whilst preserving the two most important aspects of the black truffle, namely its taste and smell.
This truffle is also aimed at a consumer that is becoming ever more responsible and is now more interested in other aspects beyond the product’s safety or organoleptic properties.
What does the consumer demand when buying a product as highly valued as the black truffle?
Besides wanting to know that the truffle is of good quality, they are increasingly asking for more data. They want to be absolutely sure that the product they are buying isn’t sourced from someone who is damaging the environment, using harmful chemical products or cannot guarantee traceability. Organic farming answers all of these concerns.
Is this kind of farming becoming more popular?
Yes, and there is plenty of evidence of this. For example, if you go to a supermarket in northern Europe, depending on what product you are looking for, it will be hard to find food that is not organic.
How can a truffle farmer apply for an organic production certificate?
Right now, in Spain, it depends on the autonomous region that you are in. So, the first thing you need to do is contact your regional organic farming authority, which will be able to tell you all about the requirements you need to comply with.
What requirements does a truffle farm need to meet to obtain an organic production certificate?
The land needs to go through a conversion period and then pass the certification and monitoring audits established by each committee.
How many years does it take to obtain an organic production certificate?
The conversion period to organic production takes three years.
Is organic black truffle profitable?
There are indirect costs, like those associated with keeping field records of treatments, inputs and irrigation... but this is already mandatory by law, even if you are not an organic farmer. So, this should not mean an increase in costs. The direct cost would be the certification itself. This will largely depend on the volume of production, the size of the farm, what is being produced, etc. But these costs are normally reasonably low and bearable.
And what does the truffle farmer gain in exchange for this investment?
Firstly, it identifies their production. Secondly, it gives their customer a tool to help them sell the product. And thirdly, let’s take a look at what is happening around us: it is becoming increasingly important to be able to identify and promote your product and make it stand out... and organic production is a great way to do just that.
Is it really necessary to make a gourmet product like black truffle stand out?
What I am about to say may upset some people, but if the black truffle disappeared tomorrow, not a lot would change. Some of us would be sad about it, but it is important to understand that if chicken disappeared tomorrow, for example, there would be a global crisis with unimaginable consequences.
Truffles are marketed at a very specific section of the population that appreciates their value and is willing to pay the going price. But this section of the population is also more demanding from a social perspective. They don’t want the products they buy to represent a problem for the environment.
What does the future of trufficulture look like in your opinion?
What might happen to truffle farmers is what has already happened in other gourmet sectors where there is increased transparency and better communication to demonstrate what they are doing well.
And what benefits could organic production bring to truffle farmers?
First, there are social benefits. Black truffle plantations have helped some areas to stabilise rural communities and stop depopulation. Then, there are the economic benefits. Truffle farms are profitable and have had a positive impact on their surrounding area that can surely go further. And lastly, there are environmental benefits. We are respectful of the environment. We are helping to prevent issues like soil erosion, and we don’t contaminate the land.
It's a fact that this industry can achieve a lot more, as long as it can maintain its environmental, social and economic sustainability.
Many thanks for the interview, Antonio.