The Coop group is one of the leading food retailers in Italy and as its president, Aldo Soldi, proudly reminded those gathered for the 150-year celebrations last year of the first consumer cooperative in Italy (founded in 1854 in Turin), it is not only the first consumer cooperative in Italy but also the only one that is still all-Italian.

To the consternation of many, the past few years have seen many of the Italian majors in the food retail sector sold to or merge with foreign giants. The most recent example is the sale of the Agnelli familys 50 per cent holding in the food division of the Rinascente group to French retailer Auchan last November, or previously the sales of formerly Berlusconi-owned Standa to the German group Rewe and of the GS chain of supermarkets to French giant Carrefour. Moreover, Carrefour and Auchan have expanded aggressively into Italy with their own supermarkets during the last few years.

Cooperatives have existed in Italy since the mid 1800s but they were predominantly local. The Coop as we know it today began life in 1947 when the Associazione Italiana delle Cooperative di Consumo (Italian association of consumer cooperatives) was created to enable collective purchasing. As a viable alternative to small private shops, the Coop became hugely popular in the difficult post-war years and in 1967 Coop Italia, a national purchasing consortium of Italys many consumer cooperatives, was created.

Coop Italia is the parent group, which does the buying and marketing for the 163 consumer cooperatives under its management, with their 1,261 supermarkets covering an area of 1.3 million sqm, more than 52,000 employees and 5.5 million members. In 2003 its sales accounted for 17 per cent of the total Italian groceries sold. Gross turnover was 11 million, up 11.6 per cent from 2002 figures.

Anyone can become a member of a Coop by paying a small fee to the local organisation (in the case of Rome residents it would be the Toscana Lazio Coop). Members are entitled to the socio Coop discount card and allowed to participate in the comitato soci (members committee) and the annual general meeting.

In an era of fierce competition, compounded by a dramatic change in eating habits and lifestyles, particularly among younger Italians, Coop Italias strategy has been to place a strong emphasis on food safety and to employ a strong code of ethics aimed at safeguarding its workers, suppliers and the general public. It has a well-established and popular own-brand label of fairly-priced, high-quality, non-genetically-modified goods, as well as a competitively-priced organic range of products. To ensure its food standards, all Coop goods must pass stringent tests at every stage of production and packaging. As one of the employees of a cheese cooperative in Liguria explains: Coop Italia sends someone regularly to check everything, to carry out tests and to ask us questions. Out of all the organisations we sell to, Coop is definitely the strictest.

Giuliana Rando, a young mother with three small children who lives near Orvieto, frequents her local Coop because its own-brand products are really good quality. She likes the fact that the supermarket offers organic and fair-trade items, as well as recycled paper products. In fact the Coop has also recently introduced PVC-free cling-wrap for fresh food. Rando says enthusiastically that you know that if you buy one of its own-brand products, it is definitely not genetically modified.

All this stringency and attention to food safety would not have been enough to ensure survival against foreign competition if the Coop had not gone even further. In 1999 it consolidated its distribution system, merging the food and non-food divisions and creating the two different sales channels of Supercoop and Ipercoop. Supercoops are smaller stores that focus on fresh produce and are aimed at regular shoppers. Ipercoop (of which there are 67 in Italy and two in Croatia) are the larger, so-called hypermarkets with a much wider assortment of products and a huge non-food selection aimed at that once-a-week or once-a- fortnight shopper.

The Coop is also one of the few supermarket chains in Italy to have exploited the increasingly popular world of online shopping. The so-called Spesa che non pesa option is now available in Rome, Genoa, Bologna and Milan. In the same vein, some stores, including two in Rome, have also introduced the Salvatempo scheme; clients with a loyalty card can pick up a portable bar-code reader at the entrance and tot up their shopping as they go, doing away with the need for long queues at the checkout and the chore of loading and unloading the trolley.

One of Coops most recent campaigns, and a vital one in its efforts to maintain its hard-earned position, is the introduction of its first own-brand formula baby milk powder. The product, called Crescendo, passes all the European Union and international directives on quality, safety and nutritional values, and costs only 9 for 900g (or 10 a kg), compared with 36 to 45 per kg for branded powdered baby milk in Italy.

Last November, the national small farm-owners association, Coldiretti, warned the government that sales of made-in-Italy food products were at risk due to the recent spate of retailer sales to foreign groups. Coop has added its voice to that of Coldiretti, saying that large-scale retailing is not known for its neutral choices. It argues that faced with a product of the same price, or only slightly lower, it is normal to give preference to your own national supply base.

Auchans managing director, Benoit Lheureux, assures critics that the markedly Italian identity of the ex-Rinascente food division is not under discussion in the slightest and that only five per cent of the food products sold in Auchan and SMA (part of the same group) are not Italian. However it seems clear that Italian suppliers will have to work very hard to remain competitive.