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Only weeks after signing a historic treaty to boost cooperation with Paris, Italy is redoubling its attacks on a transalpine front line where it will probably never see eye to eye with France: food.
Italy’s goal is to demolish the credibility of Nutri-Score, a French food-labeling system that it views as a threat to its culinary patrimony. Touted as a potential EU standard, Nutri-Score uses red-to-green traffic-light bands to warn about fatty and salty foods, to the horror of Italian gastronomes, who say that it unfairly penalizes delicacies ranging from olive oil to Parmesan cheese.
After several years of Italy looking isolated in its campaign to stop Nutri-Score from becoming the norm throughout European supermarkets, Rome argues that it is now turning the tide and is bringing Madrid round to its camp. Italy’s argument is that Mediterranean countries need to make a common stand to protect iconic foods that may be stamped with a bright red health warning, but have long formed an integral part of a regional diet that promotes longevity.
“I thought it was a lost battle,” said Italy’s Food and Farming Minister Stefano Patuanelli in the Italian parliament in December. “Now Spain has communicated that it has totally changed its position, therefore it is against Nutri-Score. France is having major internal problems,” he claimed.
He later went further and asserted that, if Spain makes its opposition official, “there is a blocking minority that does not allow [a possible Commission proposal on Nutri-Score] to pass at the Council.”
In another — potentially fatal — twist of the knife against Nutri-Score, which was invented by government-backed French scientists, the Italian competition authority has launched a probe against French supermarket giant Carrefour, and other food companies across Europe that have already started stamping the label on the products they sell in Italy.
If the investigation results in fines being levied against supermarket giants or multinationals that use the label, it could pose a big hurdle to the prospects of the nutritional labeling scheme being rolled out as mandatory across the EU.
The European Commission needs to select a labeling scheme by the end of the year under its Green Deal agenda to push consumers toward healthier food choices. Italy’s alternative label, Nutrinform, takes the shape of a light-blue charging battery.
Italy is now convinced that the tectonic plates of food diplomacy are shifting thanks to its tireless anti-Nutri-Score lobbying campaign at home and in Brussels, which counts upon the support of all the main political parties, plus farmers’ unions and some food behemoths like Ferrero.
Hostility to the Nutri-Score food label runs deep in the Epicurean nation of Italy.
Though the antitrust authority is politically independent of the government, its probe into Nutri-Score already looks like an outright indictment against the scheme, heavily suggesting that it misleads consumers in the way it ranks the nutritional value of a food by assigning it a color and a letter.
“All the evidence that we have been gathering shows that it’s really helping consumers, rather than misleading consumers,” said Monique Goyens, director general of BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation, countering that claim.
Nutri-Score supporters say the campaign against the label is fueled by fake news and unscientific scare stories.
“All this talk is for purely political reasons, and is a total denial of the interest of consumers, public health and the scientific work that demonstrates the benefits of Nutri-Score,” said Serge Hercberg, a professor of nutritional science at the University of Sorbonne Paris Nord, who led the team that invented Nutri-Score.
Hercberg wages a defense of the scheme on social media. He was recently targeted by Gian Marco Centinaio, a secretary of state (and former minister) for agriculture from the League party. Centinaio made a specious claim that Hercberg himself had admitted Nutri-Score favored ultra-processed foods.
“It’s totally incredible that a [junior minister] at that level allows himself to circulate fake news of this type. It’s a level that I, as a scientist and citizen, I’ve never seen,” Hercberg said.
Hercberg is central to a counter-campaign from over 900 scientists and health professionals in France who slammed the “violent offensive” from meat and dairy processors in a statement last month. The World Health Organisation and European countries like Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands are still backing the label to be rolled out EU-wide.
But Marco Dreosto, an MEP from the League — whose leader, Matteo Salvini, slammed Nutri-Score as an anti-Italian “secret plan” — praised Centinaio’s activism and also claimed that Rome is winning its battle against Nutri-Score.
“The action of the government has been strong and the discussion with France and Spain has led to results,” said Dreosto.
For now, Italy’s optimism is not completely justified.
Rather than announcing a full-scale U-turn on Nutri-Score, which France has officially endorsed, French Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie has in fact only stated that it is time to fine-tune the methodology underpinning it.
That move was a reaction to increasing pressure from makers of Roquefort cheese, such as dairy giant Lactalis.
“We agree with the Spanish and Italians in particular, who are close to us. The stakes are very high,” Denormandie told senators, adding that France would not make Nutri-Score mandatory unless and until the EU does.
Similarly, Italian minister Patuanelli’s claim that Spain — hitherto a backer of Nutri-Score — has “totally changed its position” is also not quite so straightforward.
Though Spain’s Agriculture Minister Luis Planas is a self-avowed Nutri-Score skeptic who wants it to treat Mediterranean specialities more fairly, he is caught up in an internal squabble with the Consumer Affairs Minister Alberto Garzón, a fervent proponent of the label who says it could save thousands of lives and wanted to roll it out in early 2021.
For now, it appears that France and Spain aim to pass the buck to Brussels, and wait until the Commission proposes a way out of the standoff.
Tweaking the recipe
For the time being the most likely course seems that the Commission will tweak Nutri-Score’s methodology, to take some of the Mediterranean umbrage out of the equation.
Senior EU official Claire Bury told POLITICO back in September that the Commission would take into account the “specific characteristics” of certain food products like olive oil and honey when legislating for a bloc-wide harmonized scheme.
Similarly, French MEP Irène Tolleret — from Emmanuel Macron’s liberal Renew Europe group – believes Nutri-Score should only be reviewed, not abandoned.
“We find ourselves in a situation where Parmesan is rated D, olive oil is C and pasta is A. But ultra-processed pasta with a lot of additives and parmesan and oil are rated A. I don’t agree with that,” she explained.
Out of possible labeling schemes, Nutri-Score is still “the easiest to understand” and only needs to be corrected, she said.
Hercberg said that the reason Nutri-Score does not take into account additives or how processed a food is is that it’s technically impossible to do so in a single labeling system.
The stark divide between the pro and anti camps is only likely to deepen in the upcoming year before the Commission picks a labeling scheme for the EU.
Patuanelli, the Italian minister, made a spurious claim about the availability of Italian produce in December when discussing a new report that said consumers favor Italy’s battery-style label over Nutri-Score.
“Italian products have practically disappeared from shelves in Belgium, which massively introduced the Nutri-Score system,” he claimed, while hoping that Italy’s Nutrinform battery scheme will prevail over Nutri-Score.
“The battle is not over,” as Nutri-Score’s Hercberg put it.
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