"Mangia sano, mangia italiano"
On April 15, Italians protested in front of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) offices against the introduction of insect-based flours authorized by the EU, following a European Commission recommendation, which was itself based on the conclusions of EFSA, located in the northeastern city of Parma. Among the slogans on the banners: "Mangia sano, mangia italiano" (Eat healthy, eat Italian)
Two weeks earlier, the Italian government banned the use of these flours in pasta and pizza and required supermarkets to label them and offer them only in separate sections, far from traditional flours. At the same time, the government didn't mention that Italian representatives in Brussels had actually voted to authorize the flours.
Italians, inventors of slow food, have a passionate — even impassioned — relationship with their gastronomy. It's understandable, and even nice. But in recent months, the activism of the Italian authorities has reached such levels that European representatives in Brussels are now talking about an aggressive Italian "gastrodiplomacy." It may make people smile, but it also often confuses and sometimes irritates Europe's professionals.
Crusade against Nutri-Score
The issue in which the Meloni government, permanent Italian representatives in Brussels, agri-food lobbies and the powerful Farmers' Confederation (Coldiretti) are most involved is that of nutritional information. While the European Commission had planned, during this mandate, to come up with a harmonized system based on existing experiences, Italy has been working hard to prevent this.
In the name of defending local products, it has worked especially hard to foil the Nutri-Score, which was first implemented in France in 2017, based on the work of French epidemiologist Serge Hercberg, and is now used on a voluntary basis in six other countries: Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Netherlands and Luxembourg. The five-level scale rates foods from green "A," for the healthiest, to red "E," for the least recommended.
The heralds of Italian gastronomy are offended, for example, by the fact that parmesan cheese and olive oil receive an ignoble D, while "plain" frozen French fries receive a reassuring A, and sweetened sodas a good-natured B, at least in the original version of the Nutri-Score algorithm. The evaluation method has since been adjusted to correct some surprising grades.
Inform, not condition
In Rome, Lorenzo Bazzana, economic manager of Coldiretti, cannot find words harsh enough to describe the scale. "It is not just simplistic; it is, above all, stupid," he says. "The Nutri-Score misleads consumers by trying to influence their choices in a dishonest way, by focusing on the salt, fat or sugar content of foods without mentioning whether they contain colorants, nitrates or preservatives, which are much more harmful to health — even carcinogenic. The Nutri-Score is approximate on the quality of the products it incriminates, and says nothing about the quantities to respect for a healthy diet."
In Brussels, Italian representatives explain that "There are no bad foods; there are bad quantities. The Nutri-Score is not the right solution to remedy the epidemic of diabetes and obesity that we observe. We need to inform consumers, yes, but not guide or manipulate them."
Consumers must not be conditioned.
This argument was taken up almost word-for-word in the European Parliament by MEP Paolo De Castro, one of the most committed members of the Italian delegation, who was previously the Minister of Agriculture. "Consumers must not be conditioned," he argues.
One consultant working on the Nutri-Score issue is almost alarmist: "It is a civilization battle that we must win against the infantilization of citizens. Adopting the Nutri-Score, telling people what they should eat, would certainly feed populism."
It's an emotional issue on both sides. Véronique Trillet-Lenoir, centrist MEP since 2019, says: "In no case do we want to prohibit food. What we want is a harmonized, mandatory labeling system, based on science, (which is) reliable and scalable. I remind you that today, the market is fragmented, since distribution groups cannot sell Nutri-Score rated products in Italy."
Last year, Italy's Competition Authority forced companies to change the packaging of products with the hated labeling. "When you talk about gastrodiplomacy, I'm talking about gastronationalism, expressed with a strong aggressiveness," says Trillet-Lenoir.
Should we read this Italian food activism as a variation of the nationalist populism of Fratelli d'Italia, Giorgia Meloni's post-fascist party, which is allied with the far-right Lega (Northern League)? "What can be said is that, for Giorgia Meloni, who has been forced so far to be quite European on major economic issues, the Nutri-Score and food are easier subjects to handle, where she can score points in opinion," one European source argues.
But the issue mobilizes the entire Italian political spectrum. Former Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, with his impeccable European credentials, has written a formal letter to Ursula von der Leyen, President of the Commission, to denounce the Nutri-Score. Former agriculture minister Paolo De Castro, on the other hand, belongs to the Social Democrat group S&D in the European Parliament.
Loss of identity
Food historian Alberto Grandi, a celebrity in Italy for his work debunking the culinary myths of the peninsula on his podcast "Denominazione di Origine Inventate" ("Invented Denomination of Origin") offers an almost psychoanalytical reading of the debate.
Food has become the most important identity issue.
"Italy is not a huge agricultural business that produces wonderful food for a giant restaurant, where all the inhabitants of Earth would dream of eating," he explains. According to him, Italians, disoriented by the loss of identity caused by the industrialization and modernization of their country after the Second World War, invented traditions that have since acted as founding myths.
"Food has become the most important identity issue. It is the only flag that national pride can unfurl, and it almost becomes culinary nationalism. The government wants to promote the idea that everything Italian is necessarily healthy, and everything that is not, may be bad. The origin of the food prevails over its quality; whereas the Italian food system is not based on small virtuous producers, but on big industry," he says.
Of the €60 billion of transalpine food exports recorded in 2022, nearly €10 billion are made by the giant Ferrero alone. Barilla and Lactalis, which follow Ferrero in the ranking, are not exactly small companies either.
In the case of the Nutri-Score, Italian economics professor Alberto Grandi describes "an instrumentalization of the debate by the government and the Coldiretti, which exalt a culinary mystique that has become grotesque. This controversy over the Nutri-Score is a sign of a country that, for fifty years, does not know how to face the challenges of modernity and prefers to crystallize in the image of a tourist destination, instead of investing in the future."
At the European Consumers' Organisation, Camille Perrin, who has been working for years on nutrition issues, deplores the multiplication, in Italy, of "irrational arguments in all these cases (artificial meat, insect meal), not to mention the number of conspiracy theories that circulate on food."
It should be noted that Rome is not alone in its crusade, and has found attentive ears in other capitals, especially on the label. Madrid shares some of its convictions. The Czech presidency of the EU, in the second half of 2022, struggled to hide its own skepticism about the Nutri-Score. And Poland was also able to engage with Italy to get a return of the favor.
France believes that the Nutri-Score, or another harmonized system, would improve consumer information without compromising the competitiveness of local products. But, according to our information, the European Commissioner for Health, Stella Kyriakides, has more or less given up persevering on this explosive issue, in which Rome has invested so much political capital. Officially, she continues to finalize its impact study.
Italy has not yet won all its battles. Meloni's government is disappointed that the Commission did not find fault with Ireland's proposed alcohol warning, but hopes that the WTO will somehow get in Dublin's way. Most likely, Europe will approve other insect meals in the future, as protein sources with a limited carbon footprint.
Surprise: according to a study by the University of Bergamo published earlier this year, two Italians out of three say they are willing to try insect-based foods. Even in Parma, the heart of the Food Valley, the thriving Il Palapa bar offers cricket-based treats. "After all, in the 16th century, the tomato from America was a new food," notes a senior Commission official.