Italy is claiming victory over what it calls British culinary barbarianism after the European Union queried the UK’s “traffic light” labelling system for fatty foods.
Launched last year to combat Britain’s growing obesity problem, the system has foods on supermarket shelves marked with a green, amber or red symbol denoting the levels of fat, salt and sugar.
It triggered a furious response from Italian food producers and the Italian government, which claimed that British shoppers would stop buying parmesan, salami, olive oil and other Italian foods which may contain fat but make up the much-vaunted Mediterranean diet.
“You risk a red code for extra virgin olive oil and green for Coca-Cola Light,” said Gaetano Pascale, the head of the Slow Food group in Italy.
Arguing that high-fat foods are only unhealthy when eaten in excess, Italy campaigned in Brussels for EU intervention, winning support from salami- producing countries such as Spain, and got a result on Wednesday when the European Commission said it had sent a “letter of formal notice” to the UK, and wanted a response within two months.
“The concern that we have is that the system is likely to make the marketing of some products more difficult and therefore hinder or impede trade between EU countries,” said Miguel Sagredo, a spokesman. “The simplistic character of the traffic light system might in certain instances create a misconception on the consumers.”
If Britain does not budge, the case may now head for European courts. The UK was backed in Brussels only by Hungary and Finland, but a spokesman for Britain’s Department for Health was defiant yesterday, claiming: “We are confident that the UK is compliant with the principle of free movement of goods in relation to food labelling.”
However, Nunzia De Girolamo, the former Italian agriculture minister, who fought against the traffic light system in Brussels last year, called it a Mediterranean triumph. “Italy has beaten England,” she said.
Beatrice Lorenzin, the Italian health minister, said: “Last December I went to London to warn the English they were making a mistake. I waged a battle, convinced that I needed to explain and defend the products of the Mediterranean diet that are part of our tradition and which drive our exports.”
Italy exports more than €2 billion (£1.6 billion) worth of food to Britain each year, with €650 million worth believed to fall in the red category. Producers have claimed that Italy could lose €200 million worth of business thanks to the traffic light system.
The Italian reaction coincided with a discussion in London yesterday between Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, and David Cameron, which touched on trade.
La Stampa, the Italian newspaper, published photos of a red-coded packet of Italian parmesan and a green coded bottle of Sainsbury’s Diet Cola, calling it the “clamorous” proof of the “distorted” effect of the system.
Confagricoltura, the Italian farmers group, said: “The red traffic light gives the idea of a dangerous threat to health, but it is not the product in itself which is dangerous, but incorrect comsumption.” The Italian Confederation of Farmers said: “There are no good foods and bad foods, just well-balanced diets.”