Mike Pompeo (L) smiled when he was offered the cheese
Mike Pompeo (L) smiled when he was offered the cheese AFP / Alberto PIZZOLI

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday faced pleas from Italian farmers not to impose tariffs on local produce as a local television journalist offered him a slice of Parmesan cheese to make the same point.

As Pompeo drove up to the presidential palace, he was greeted by members of Italy's largest agricultural union Coldiretti who held up banners saying "Don't kill Italian food" and "Mr Pompeo, we are friends".

They brandished bottles of olive oil, Parma ham and other Italian specialities under a banner "A present for Trump".

Later, television journalist Alice Martinelli interrupted a photo call with Prime Minister Paolo Conte by offering him a slice of Parmesan cheese.

"I have a present... the prime minister knows what I'm talking about," she said. "It is something made best in Italy... made from the heart... so we hope you can help us in taking it to Mr Trump please."

Pompeo smiled throughout although he appeared surprised and handed the package to Conte as the woman was led out by two security men.

According to media reports, the World Trade Organization has greenlighted the imposition of $7.5 billion of US tariffs on EU exports annually as a 15-year long Airbus-Boeing row nears its climax.

Italian Agriculture Minister Teresa Bellanova has sounded the alarm, saying: "The Americans import $4.5 billion worth of Italian food products, or 10 percent of our total exports."

She told La Stampa newspaper that a hike in tariffs would "seriously endanger jobs, companies and families" across the country, adding that Parmesan and olive oil exports raked in more than $1 billion.