Vehemence of Italy’s reaction to wine warning plan has taken Irish diplomats aback

Europe Letter: How did Irish plans to put cancer warnings on bottles of alcohol become the focus of an Italian controversy?

The vehemence of Italy’s reaction to Ireland’s plan to put health warnings on bottles of alcohol has taken Irish diplomats aback.

This week, Italian foreign minister Antonio Tajani adopted a conspiratorial tone as he raged to journalists about an “attack on the Mediterranean diet” by nebulous “interests”.

He suggested Ireland’s plans were part of efforts to deliberately replace Italy’s food heritage with products from abroad, propounding something like a version of the “great replacement” theory, but for Italian food.

The right-wing coalition led by nationalist Giorgia Meloni is clearly prepared to make the issue into a culture war, just as warnings about gas stoves causing childhood asthma ballooned into a partisan bun fight recently in the United States.


Italian national identity is profoundly linked to food. The emergence of the cultural idea of Italian food is closely associated with the unification of Italy in 1871. Its culinary equivalent was performed by the father of Italian cuisine, Pellegrino Artusi, who brought together recipes from all Italian regions in his landmark 1891 cookbook Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well.

Contrary to national mythmaking, Italian cuisine as we know it is a relatively recent historical development and the happy result of international trade and cross-pollination.

The tomato originates in Latin America and was introduced to Europe only after colonisation. It was viewed with suspicion in Italy at first: the first recipe for tomato sauce was published in 1694, and the practice of pairing it with pasta is thought to have taken hold in the 1800s. Durum wheat pasta probably spread into Europe from the Arab world, and was popularly adopted in Italy by the 1700s. Basil likely originated in India.

Serious economic interests are invested in the concept of the Mediterranean diet. Italian wine exports were worth €7.1 billion in 2021, part of food and beverage exports that reached a record €52 billion that year.

Ireland’s labelling plan, which is still under development and is the outworking of a bill passed in 2018, would require any producers of alcoholic drinks, including Italian vineyards, to affix certain health warning labels to bottles if they are to be sold in Ireland.

The warnings would include the familiar symbol cautioning against drinking alcohol while pregnant, and warnings that “drinking alcohol causes liver disease” and “there is a direct link between alcohol and fatal cancers”.

The issue has blown up now because Ireland was required under single market rules to notify the European Commission of this change, and the time period for the executive to object recently expired without complaint, despite pressure from the EU’s major wine-producing states.

Alcohol industry groups had lodged objections to Ireland’s plans as disproportionate or unfounded, and warned against introducing divergent labelling standards within the single market. Health authorities, cancer research groups, and addiction charities lodged submissions in support.

The introduction of a warning linking alcohol to cancer would be a first in Europe. But it matches efforts by international health authorities to make clear that “no level of alcohol consumption is safe”, in the words of the World Health Organisation, which published a statement in the Lancet Public Health journal setting this out earlier this month.

While the risk is greater the more you drink, half of all the cancers attributed to alcohol consumption in the European region were caused by “light” or “moderate” drinking, meaning 1.5 bottles of wine or less a week, according to the WHO, which cited the latest available data.

Meanwhile the World Heart Federation has sought to debunk the idea that a glass of wine a day is good for health, referring to this as a “myth”.

Older studies found an association between light alcohol drinking and a reduction of the risk of heart disease. But newer research found this may not be true, and it is unclear whether the benefit was really due to the alcohol or down to other behavioural or genetic differences, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The link between alcohol and cancer is included in the European Commission’s “Beating Cancer Plan”, which vows to support member states in “raising awareness about the risk of alcohol consumption and cancer” and other measures to reduce alcohol consumption: Europe has the highest rate in the world.

The Irish Government’s rationale is that if a product causes harm, the producer has a duty to inform consumers of the risks.

The view of international health authorities couldn’t be clearer – which perhaps explains why wine producers are so fearful that if Ireland goes ahead with its health warnings plan, other countries may follow suit.