It’s been 40 days and 40 nights since I published my look into America’s Great Bucatini Shortage, wherein I discovered there was not only a temporary nationwide scarcity of bucatini but there was also some nefarious intra-pasta drama going on behind the scenes. Specifically, I learned that an as-yet-unknown pasta competitor had likely tipped off the FDA about De Cecco bucatini and its slightly out-of-spec iron content — which is required to meet a certain minimum to be sold in the U.S. — thus halting its import into this country for nearly a full calendar year.
If you’ve followed along thus far, you know the FDA has insisted it discovered the lack of iron in a “routine inspection.” You also know that I have tried to get anyone from De Cecco on the phone for nearly three months but that the company has successfully dodged me the entire time. In other words, as of February 1, I still didn’t know who had screwed over De Cecco, why it took so long to fix the iron deficiency and get the bucatini back on American shelves, and, most important, why it was fully ignoring me, its most ardent and normal fan.
But last week, I received an email from the National Pasta Association, letting me know that De Cecco was finally willing to talk and that the NPA itself would broker this crucial international summit.
This morning, I got on Zoom with Giacomo Campinoti, chief executive officer of De Cecco USA, and Paolo Consalvi, chief financial officer of De Cecco USA, to ask my many lingering questions about the most important mystery of our modern times, and also to ask why they ignored me.
I’ve been trying to get in touch with you guys for a while!
Giacomo Campinoti: [Laughs] Yeah, I want to start by saying that I am sorry for the delay in following up with you. I [think you can] imagine that because of the sensitivity of the ongoing investigation we are having with the FDA and are solving as we speak, we decided that because of this particular thing not to release any statement for the time being. My apologies, because we know how enthusiastically you were looking to help us, and I appreciate that. The reason I am here today is to tell you thank you for taking care of the situation. I know you and your mom are missing bucatini. We are working in making sure that you and your mom get a very conspicuous refurbishment of bucatini.
Are you ready to make a statement now?
GC: We couldn’t make a statement before; we needed to have more vision on how the situation was evolving. What happened, as you know, is that we had an investigation from the FDA as far as it concerned the enrichment of our bucatini, and they found that there was a very sensible amount below the range, really nothing. It’s not harmful, but it’s not compliance. And we need to be compliant, and we know that. It happened during the pandemic, which didn’t help us. And just as all of our competitors, we had a lot of issues with demand being very high, so we had a lot of cuts [to our SKUs]. We really couldn’t release any statement to give you a clear indication on what was happening. Now we have a clear vision and are actually solving the problem as we speak. That’s the good news. I am here today to tell you I hope that very soon we get back to the USA. The issue has been solved internally. Now we need the FDA to sanctify it and pull us out of the automatic hold.
So who do you think sold you out to the FDA?
GC: We are busy providing the highest quality of pasta in the market. So to your point that you raise in your article, we don’t know if this was a maneuver from our competitors. And to be honest, we don’t care. We don’t do this kind of thing. We are busy giving the highest-quality pasta to our consumers. We want to believe it was a random search from the FDA, and, glass half full, I am glad they let us know about this issue and we corrected it.
So you’re saying you don’t know? You have no idea?
GC: Not only that, I don’t know if it was a tip-off, and even if it was, personally I don’t care. We are busy providing our mission, which is providing the best, highest-quality pasta. We don’t care. We know these things happen in the market. We personally don’t do these things, but if they do, let them. It’s sad to think about wasting time doing something like this when you [could] have better service to your clients. I’m not interested in knowing if there was somebody behind this plot.
Wouldn’t you want to know? Because who’s to stop them from doing it again?
GC: [Laughs] Well, if it happens that we will find out who it was, we will move accordingly. But it’s not our mission. Our mission is to provide the best and highest-quality pastas in the market. We want to devote all of our time only to this mission. But we are aware that we need to keep an eye on certain competitors, and we will probably move accordingly.
What went wrong initially? Why was the iron lower than usual?
GC: It’s a technical question. To be honest, I don’t know. I think the specific shape of bucatini probably engendered the vitamin enrichment not uniform on the product. Probably that created the situation. It’s a really immaterial divergence compared to the metrics, the range. It’s really something that has to do with the shape of bucatini pasta.
GC: It’s a personal allegation; it’s a personal thought. I don’t have any facts to substantiate that, but to your question, why we had this problem with bucatini, I think it’s the shape — but we don’t know.
So you think, because of the shape, it’s harder to distribute iron as evenly?
GC: Probably. It’s a particular shape, long spaghetti with a hole in between, so it’s a personal feeling that I had.
When did you realize there was an issue with the FDA?
Paolo Consalvi: One year ago.
GC: At the beginning of the pandemic.
PC: What happened is that, during the pandemic, even the FDA slowed down their investigations, so all things were stretched out. We decided to kind of stop doing bucatini because we had so much demand for the other cuts — spaghetti, linguini. Worldwide, the demand was exploding. But also the FDA slowed down because of the pandemic. So that’s why it’s up to one year and we are still having this issue not yet resolved.
GC: It did not help expedite the resolution of this issue. Now we are hopefully at the photo finish. I can’t wait until we end this unfortunate event.
So the iron is in there; you’re just waiting for the FDA to give you the test and the go-ahead?
GC: Yes. We corrected the issue internally a few months ago and are waiting for the FDA to confirm they’ll stop the automatic hold of the product. Our goal is to remove the automatic hold, thereby having the product come into the U.S., of course in compliance with the FDA standards, and be able to send them as we used to do. But it’s a slow process.
Maybe this will put a little pressure on them to speed up the process. Are you willing to at least speculate on who you think tipped them off? Any theories?
[Both laugh.] GC: Unfortunately, no. I would like to know. It’s always a good thing to know who your enemies are. We don’t know, and we really don’t care. We feel pity for them. If it’s a plot — I like that word — I wonder how they find the time to do something so miserable like that. We don’t do this. Our mission is to serve our clients with the highest-quality pasta in the market.
If you had to guess, when will it be back on shelves?
GC: Well, you can find it on shelves, just not as many as you used to. Hopefully soon. It’s just a matter of time that we will be able to provide the normal stock and refurbishment.
PC: At the moment, the demand from customers is still higher than what we have in stock.
Were people reaching out about the whereabouts of bucatini before the piece was published? Did they notice its absence?
PC: Your article was, uh — [makes explosion gesture]
GC: Well, there were clients asking for the specific cut. They were asking, “How can I order bucatini?” And we let them know there was an issue. We have always been transparent with our clients.
Were you guys mad about the article or happy that attention had been drawn to it?
GC: It was … mixed feelings. We were frustrated because, really, you can’t even know how many missed sales we had for bucatini and how much product we needed to trash for something that was not really our fault. But at the same time, we were happy that somebody was taking care of our situation. So I appreciate it. That’s why I started off this conversation with an apology. I wanted to follow up with you earlier, but the reason I didn’t is because we needed a clear vision. We are going to have this issue once and for all resolved.
PC: For me, at the beginning, it was a mixed feeling. But then I saw on your Twitter a girl wanted to send you a bucatini from a competitor, and you replied, “I want De Cecco.” And I said, “Okay, she’s a real fan.”
How much did you have to get rid of?
GC: A lot. It was a lot. It was … quite some pasta.
Why wouldn’t you be able to sell that in Italy or elsewhere?
GC: The short answer is that the vitamin-enriched pasta can be sold only in the U.S. market and some other countries like Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, Israel, etc., as far as I know. As to the iron-deficient bucatini, we concluded it was economically less burdensome to destroy the items here in the U.S. rather than sending the goods back to Italy for our HQ to then sell these returned products at a heavily discounted price to other countries with qualifying vitamin-enriched requirements.
Have you told the FDA that you fixed it? Can you let me know when you hear from them?
GC: They expected us to speed up, and we are waiting for them to speed up and they are in the process of confirmation. As soon as these processes are brought to an end, we will contact you and let you know. I will keep you duly posted on this.