Mediterranean diet could suffer from UK ‘traffic light’ labels, Italy claims


Italy has raised concerns with other European governments over a UK proposal for ‘traffic light’ food labels across the 28-country bloc, saying the scheme to warn consumers of high fat or salt content could damage the reputation of the Mediterranean diet.

The Italian government told European agriculture ministers during a meeting in Brussels on Monday (16 December) that the Mediterranean diet could see many of its foods labelled as “unhealthy” under the UK's proposal for colour-coded food labels.

Italy estimated that the scheme could cost its home producers as much as €200 million a year in lost sales.

The UK introduced in June the traffic light system combined with guideline daily amounts (GDAs), in which foods are awarded red, amber or green colours for their amount of energy (calories), saturated fats, sugar and salt per 100 grams.

The British government proposed the scheme for adoption at the EU level in October, citing evidence it could help consumers make healthier choices and reduce obesity rates.

Italian food would suffer from the scheme

But a statement by the Italian delegation said the information offered by the 'traffic-light' scheme "is simplistic and does not take into account how different food products are combined in a healthy diet".

The Mediterranean diet is considered one of the world's healthiest, presenting usually a balanced mix of fattier foods, such as cheese, cured meats and olive oil, and vegetables and fruits. The diet has been deemed by UNESCO as a cultural heritage to protect.

The traffic light labels could therefore create a situation in which the foods were simultaneously promoted and discouraged by European regulation.

Many Mediterranean foods, such as mozzarella cheeses or Parma hams, are also protected by EU quality schemes, which certify their specific geographical origin or traditional production method.

“Many foods benefiting from EU quality schemes … such as cheese, ham, honey, jam and fruit compote, etc… would all get a ‘red’ label,” read the Italian statement.

This could have impacts on the make up of the Italian foods.

“The consequence could be that, while food products bearing EU quality marks should respect stringent regulations about their composition, other products could freely be reformulated, changing the content of fat sugar and/or salt in order to get a ‘green label’,” the delegation said.

Paolo Di Croce, the general secretary of healthy eating campaigners Slow Food International, told EURACTIV that the traffic light scheme was “deceptive” as it “does not provide sufficient information on the quality of a product: the information is too limited”.

“Fats, sugars and carbohydrates” can be more or less healthy according to the raw materials and the production process,” he said.

Italian exports of foods considered "red" under the UK scheme amount to some €632 million per year.

Market distortion

The Italian EU delegation also warned that the traffic light scheme could potentially create distortions in the EU internal market as the UK proposal contains no requirement for harmonisation across EU countries.

This raises the prospect of the same colour representing different nutrient levels across member states.

“In other member states, the same product, in the same supermarket, on the same shelf, may thus result [in being] labelled in two (potentially 28) different ways, since products labelled according to the UK scheme may also be sold in other Member States, especially if manufacturers and retailers (implementing the voluntary scheme) operate at EU-wide level,” read the Italian statement.

Some 15 other EU countries, Croatia in particular, have supported Italy’s position on the traffic light proposal.

Paolo Di Croce, the general secretary of Slow Food International, said "we think that consumers have the right to receive detailed information on the products to know what they are buying. Labels should be written with great care and an eye on detail, giving concrete and useful information on the product that matches reality and is not made up for marketing purposes."

The UK department of health adopted on June 19 a voluntary traffic light system, which colour-codes the energy, saturated fat, sugar and salt content of food product. The colours are used in combination with the standard guideline daily amounts (GDAs), which are the main reference for used on food packaging across Europe. All major UK retailers have signed up to the scheme.

In 2010 MEPs rejected a European Commission proposal for a "visual support system" on food packaging but approved making nutrition labelling in the form of the GDAs mandatory.

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