Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Economic Secret Hidden in a Tiny, Discontinued Pasta

Ronzini says it didn’t want to halt sales of its star-shaped “pastina.” So why did it?
January 13, 2023
The Economic Secret Hidden in a Tiny, Discontinued Pasta
Uncooked dry stelline pastina (Shutterstock)

Recently, pasta maker Ronzoni announced that they will be discontinuing their iconic pastina—a tiny star-shaped macaroni, and the smallest-sized pasta in their lineup. Pastina is made by other companies, notably Barilla, but based on the public reaction to the news, Ronzoni’s appears particularly beloved. Its shape is also unique; it has slightly rounded edges, resembling a miniature flower.

The announcement spawned a raft of articles, including many noting the particular loss felt by Italian Americans. (Not me—Barilla beats Ronzoni by a country mile traveled on a Roman road.) Many of the articles emphasized pastina’s status as a classic comfort or sick food. “Italian penicillin,” some call it. It’s true: When I was sick as a kid, my mother made it for me. When my wife was sick once, I went out and found some. (It isn’t as common down in Maryland and Virginia as it is where I grew up in New Jersey.)

But more interesting than the announcement itself or the human interest element is Ronzoni’s reason for halting pastina sales. A company statement said, “After extensive efforts, we regretfully announce that Ronzoni pastina is being discontinued. This wasn’t a decision that we wanted to make.”

Well, then why did they make it?

Because, the statement continued, “We searched extensively for an alternative solution but were unable to identify a viable option to make Pastina in the same beloved small shape, size and standards you have come to expect.”

A spokesperson interviewed in Marketwatch reiterated the company’s line: The beloved pasta’s “small size and star-shape require specialized production from a third-party manufacturer . . . [which] informed us they would cease producing Ronzoni Pastina effective January 2023.” They repeated the part about the unsuccessful search for a new producer, too.

But then the spokesperson teased, “We haven’t given up.”

There were, as noted, any number of news articles about the announcement. But none of them dug any deeper into the production-canceling problems alleged in the Ronzoni statement. A further wrinkle: According to Snopes, an earlier statement appears to have been provided by customer service representatives to anyone inquiring about the fate of the pasta in the days immediately following the Christmas holiday; as one Twitter account put it, the gist of the earlier statement was that sales were “insufficient [to] support continued production.” “Those representatives perhaps had not yet been fully informed of all of the facts,” Snopes suggested.

Now perhaps this is all just a marketing trick, like the time Popeyes got rid of its Cajun rice—widely considered one of its best side dishes—and then said that it might be coming back, which it did, at least for a time. If it’s really true that pastina’s popularity was flagging, what better way to juice sales than to get newspapers and blogs across the country to carry your press release, alongside reams of quotes from pastina lovers mourning their loss? Those customer service reps may have been telling the truth the first time, before a marketing VP realized the potential for a profitable misdirection campaign.

But speculation aside, what struck me was the idea that Ronzoni—probably the second–best known pasta maker after Barilla—somehow couldn’t find a supplier for their pastina. As more than one commenter noted, why isn’t Ronzoni itself the supplier? Maybe that’s because the company, though over a century old, has for some time been merely a brand name in conglomerate portfolios. (Most recently, Ronzoni was acquired by 8th Avenue Food & Provisions, a subsidiary of Post Holdings, the multibillion-dollar holding company that has its roots in Post Cereals but now owns a host of food brands.) As the pastina press release basically admits, whatever entity Ronzoni still is doesn’t necessarily make the products on which its name appears. Co-packing is a ubiquitous practice in the food industry, but it doesn’t stop there. The situation isn’t that different from, say, a Black & Decker toaster you might buy at Walmart. Look closely, and you’ll probably find a note about the brand name being used under license.

It seems absurd that in the era of global trade and 3D printing, there would be any difficulty in producing a tiny star-shaped die through which to push pasta dough. That’s all pasta is, of course—water and flour forced through molds or dies. How elusive could the equipment to make pastina possibly be?

Well. This would not be the first time a seemingly simple manufactured product proved difficult to obtain. Several years ago, Apple suspended its effort to assemble iPhones and Mac Pros in America because it couldn’t reliably source some tiny screws. The tool and die landscape in the United States was reportedly so diminished that even a tech titan like Apple couldn’t easily commission these particular components reliably. How? It’s just a screw. But if you wish to make a screw, you must first invent the universe. Or, at least invent a full-dress tool-and-die manufacturing industry, one of whose outputs is a tiny screw.

Because it isn’t just the die. It’s the tools and machines that make dies. And the tools and machines that make those machines. And the ecosystem of engineering knowhow and tacit knowledge that make all of it run smoothly and efficiently enough to be competitive.

Financial journalist Eamonn Fingleton wrote, in his somewhat jingoistic protectionist manifesto In the Jaws of the Dragon, that when America loses a manufacturing sector to Asia, we’re not just losing the manufacturing plants. We’re also losing all of that accumulated knowledge embodied in the workers who maintained the derelict industry, and who now have no one to pass it on to. So it was, perhaps, that the American tool and die landscape simply couldn’t compete with that of southern China. This has always seemed to me the strongest of the arguments against unfettered free trade.

But it isn’t as if only America struggles with modern metalworking. Apparently, Japan—that old bogeyman for protectionists—has run into the same sort of issue, and in an industry no less iconic than that of home audio equipment.

Technics, the Panasonic imprint known for its high-quality stereo components, discontinued its legendary SL-1200 turntable line—first introduced in 1972—back in 2010. Their statement offered two reasons, the second one being more important here:

We are sure that retailers and consumers will understand that our product range has to reflect the accelerating transformation of the entire audio market from analogue to digital.

In addition, the number of component suppliers serving the analogue market has dwindled in recent years and we brought forward the decision to leave the market rather than risk being unable to fulfill future orders because of a lack of parts.

But only six years later, Technics brought out an updated version of the classic turntable. You might think, then, that the intimation of parts shortages was just a way to exculpate the brand, and that it was all a marketing ploy to drum up interest and sympathetic media coverage in advance of the planned triumphant return. But there was some sticker shock when the turntable was re-released: The 2016 rerelease cost over $4,000. The original SL-1200 sold for well under $1,000 in its final days. Why?

The reference to the difficulty of obtaining parts turned out to be true. The new SL-1200 line was rebuilt from scratch—partly to make various improvements, but also because the molds for many of the original parts had worn out, and recreating them with today’s labor costs proved far more expensive than in Japan’s stereo golden age of the 1970s:

“Because the original 1210 turntables [a variant of the 1200 series] were manufactured for so many years, the manufacturing process had got to a very low cost. Now we need to invest in all the tools again, and the price now is much higher than the 1970s,” Itani explained. “We began to study just a few months prior to IFA, maybe summer 2014, for the new SL-1200. We learned that it was impossible [to make the same deck], as almost all the tools for manufacturing were gone or heavily damaged—only one die remained, and that was for the dust cover.”

It’s worth emphasizing that the key issue here was not obtaining any precision electronic components (the primary issue facing anybody attempting to make high-quality cassette players these days), but rather the basic metalworking involved in casting various parts. The barrier, in other words, was not complex, but simple—one that the industry had vaulted over already decades before, but discovered it could not jump so easily again, given the degradation of its shoes, the track, and the stadium in the intervening years.

There’s something profoundly humbling about this. For all of the wealth we enjoy today, and for all of the technological progress we’ve made, some things simply require good old-fashioned labor and specialized knowledge. And those things are increasingly elusive, even as we are increasingly affluent.

This all started with a pasta brand discontinuing an iconic, if not bestselling, pasta variety, and a suggestion that manufacturing troubles were behind it. As I said, it’s possible that Ronzoni pastina will be back—either because the manufacturing issues will be resolved, or because they are being exaggerated. But given the wider landscape of American industry, it seems very likely that the pasta company is telling the truth.

The stunning advancement of digital technology has given us a sense that anything is possible, that everything is just a click or a touch away. But the world of machines and factories and tools and dies is different. And sometimes, inventing the universe to extrude some pasta just doesn’t pencil out.

Addison Del Mastro

Addison Del Mastro writes on urbanism and cultural history. Find him on Substack (The Deleted Scenes) and Twitter (@ad_mastro).