When thinking of a list of a country’s “strategic” assets, milk or yoghurt may not immediately come to mind.

However, six years after France claimed Danone was a “national jewel” as it looked to fend off rumoured interest from PepsiCo, the Italian government has made similar pronouncements about its country’s own flagship dairy processor – Parmalat.

The company, which in 2003 collapsed with a EUR14bn (US$19.7bn) hole in its accounts, has again hit the business headlines in Europe – and Italy’s politicians are concerned. Lactalis, the French dairy group, last week upped its stake in Parmalat to 29%, just short of the 30% threshold that would spark a takeover bid for the whole business. Lactalis has also nominated a slate of candidates for nomination to the Parmalat board at next month’s shareholder meeting.

Lactalis’s investment has sparked public support from Italian politicians and business for Parmalat. Confectioner Ferrero said it was looking at the situation “with interest and sympathy at an industrial Italian solution”. The Italian government has said businesses and banks should move to help keep Parmalat in Italian hands. Rome has already passed a law designed to help Parmalat delay its shareholder meeting and give the company – and those potentially interested in forming a consortium to control Parmalat – more time to consider its options.

Lactalis, meanwhile, has pointed to its track record in Italy (it has been present in the market since 1997). The company told just-food last week that “results” were “more important” than the “nationality” of a company and said it had, for instance, grown the Italian cheese brand Galbani it acquired in 2006 outside of Italy.

The story looks set to run and run. Events remain fluid. Over the weekend, an Italian court reportedly opened an investigation into possible market manipulation by Parmalat, an allegation that Lactalis refutes. A senior Lactalis executive, meanwhile, issued a statement yesterday to say Parmalat would remain in Italy and would continue to grow in its domestic market.

From milk to Metro Group, the German retail giant and the world’s fourth-largest retailer. Last week, the company issued its 2010 financial results and pointed to “record” annual earnings. However, Metro shareholders seemed less than impressed by the group’s conservative outlook and plans to expand in developing markets over the next 12 months, while analysts insisted that the group’s performance failed to justify its valuation, causing the retailer’s shares to drop in the wake of the announcement.

Sainsbury‘s was another retailer that saw its stock hit last week. The UK retailer saw its shares fall more than 6% on Wednesday (23 March) when it announced its fourth-quarter sales figures. The numbers disappointed some in the investment community, while the results also hit the shares of Sainsbury’s retail rivals in the UK, like Tesco and Morrisons.

Consumer confidence remains fragile in the UK. Unemployment is at over 2.5m and households remain concerned about the rising rate of inflation. Retailers will find it hard to drive sales and, consequently, the narrative of recent marketing campaigns has focused on price and Sainsbury’s chief executive Justin King noted that the retailer had launched its own fresh initiatives to emphasise its value.

Tesco announces its annual results in three weeks’ time, the first set of numbers since new CEO Philip Clarke took the helm earlier this month. The figures will be scrutinised with interest.