Simon Calder discusses food and drink ban on French rail
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The Italian Government is battling against a French food labelling system, known as Nutri-Score, which has been touted as a potential EU-wide standard. Its use of red to green traffic light bands warning of fatty and salty foods has brought Italy’s gastronomes close to boiling point as they claim it unfairly punishes delicacies such as olive oil and Parmesan cheese.
Rome maintains it is now bringing Madrid round to its way of thinking that Mediterranean countries need to unite to protect iconic foods which may be branded with a red health warning.
Italy’s Food and Farming Minister Stefano Patuanelli told the country’s parliament in December: “I thought it was a lost battle. Now Spain has communicated that it has totally changed its position, therefore it is against Nutri-Score. France is having major internal problems.”
He later insisted that if Spain were to make its opposition official, then a blocking minority would not allow a possible proposal by the European Commission on Nutri-Score to get the approval of EU heads of state.
In a potential further setback, Italy’s competition authority has launched five investigations into Nutri-Score’s use in the country by companies including French supermarket giant Carrefour and Britain’s Weetabix Ltd.
The fear is that the Nutri-Score label will be seen as absolute assessments on the healthiness of a particular product, regardless of the needs of a person’s diet, lifestyle as well as how much they eat within a varied and balanced diet.
Nutri-Score converts the nutritional value of products into a code consisting of five letters with their own colour.
Each good is scored according to a scientific algorithm with the formula taking into account nutrients to avoid and more positive ones such as fibre.
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POLITICO reports that Italy believes the tectonic plates of food diplomacy are shifting in its favour as its lobbying at home and in Brussels wins over politicians, farmers’ unions and food giants such as Ferrero.
However, as with any food fight, things have become messy.
Serge Hercberg, a professor of nutritional science at the University of Sorbonne Paris Nord, led the team that invented Nutri-Score, which is backed by Paris.
In November, Gian Marco Centinaio, a secretary of state and former minister for agriculture from the League party made a specious claim on Twitter that Mr Hercberg himself had admitted Nutri-Score favoured ultra-processed foods.
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Mr Hercberg shot back: “This is fake news, a scandalous lie! Of course, I’ve never said or written such an absurd thing about the #NutriScore. But spreading [rumours], defaming researchers and research is a common lobbying strategy. A gross manipulation…”.
He told POLITICO: “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.”
However, Marco Dreosto, an MEP from the League, praised Mr Centinaio’s activism, claiming Rome is winning the battle against Nutri-Score.
He said to POLITICO: “The action of the government has been strong and the discussion with France and Spain has led to results.”
French Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie has admitted it is time to fine-tune the methodology underpinning the system.
He has said France would not make Nutri-Score mandatory unless and until the EU does.
But there are also divisions within Spain.
Its Agriculture Minister Luis Planas is a Nutri-Score sceptic who wants it to treat Mediterranean specialities more fairly.
He is reportedly caught up in an internal squabble with Consumer Affairs Minister Alberto Garzón who says Nutri-Score could save thousands of lives.
Senior EU official Claire Bury told POLITICO in September that the Commission would consider the specific characteristics of certain food products like olive oil and honey when legislating for an EU-wide scheme.
The Commission needs to choose a labelling scheme by the end of the year as it makes efforts to push consumers towards healthier food choices.
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