Italy accuses Ireland of ‘attack on Mediterranean diet’ in wine labelling row

Government plan to put cancer warning labels on alcohol condemned as a ‘dangerous precedent’ to set in EU

The Italian foreign minister has decried Irish plans to place cancer warnings on wine bottles as an “attack” on his country’s identity and heritage, escalating a row over health labelling to a full diplomatic spat.

The brouhaha stems from the Government’s plans to introduce warning labels on alcohol that will break new ground in labelling by mentioning a link between drinking alcohol and cancer.

The plan has provoked a storm of protest in Italy, a major wine producer, where industry groups have condemned it as a dangerous precedent to set within the European Union due to fears of the effect on its exports.

“There is an attack on the Mediterranean diet, which is a fundamental part of our economy,” Italy’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister Antonio Tajani told journalists in Brussels on Monday.

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“It is also part of our identity. Our identity cannot be perverted... there is a right to defend our economic system.”

Mr Tajani told journalists that he had met Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin for bilateral talks on the sidelines of the foreign affairs council on Monday and had raised Italy’s objections to the labelling plan.

“I explained to him how dangerous the message is that comes from Dublin,” said Mr Tajani, who is a long-serving senior politician from the Forza Italia party of Silvio Berlusconi and part of the hard-right government of prime minister Giorgia Meloni.

“I also reiterated that a glass of red wine, all the doctors say it is also good for the heart, so it is doubtful that it can also be bad for you.”

The World Health Organisation has said that there is “no safe amount” of alcohol consumption that does not affect health, part of the Irish government’s rationale to require alcoholic drink producers to affix warning labels to inform consumers of the risks.

But Mr Tajani called on the European Commission to act to rein in the Government’s plans.

“I believe the commission should intervene and bring the rules of a country back in line with the rules of the single market,” he said. Mr Martin had been “open” to discussing the issue, and talks would be set up between the Italian ministers of health and agriculture with their Irish counterparts, Mr Tajani said.

The row blew up after a deadline for the European Commission to object to Ireland’s labelling plans passed recently without the EU central body lodging any complaint, despite the protests of major wine-producing EU member states.

Mr Tajani suggested this could be the thin end of the wedge to EU countries introducing the use of Nutri-Score, a system of nutritional labelling on food that Italian food producers fiercely oppose due to its poor view of treasured high-fat delicacies such as mozzarella and parmesan.

“Many interests” were at work, Mr Tajani continued, suggesting it was all part of a broader plan to change Italy’s dietary traditions and referring to recent suggestions that crickets could be a nutritious food source.

“It all seems very coincidental. New products are brought in, and the Mediterranean diet is attacked,” Mr Tajani said. “It isn’t a conspiracy. It is an attack on the Mediterranean diet.”

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times