Britain’s voluntary front-of-pack ‘traffic light’ label ranks products for their sugar, fat, saturated fatty acid and salt content per 100 g by assigning the colour red, green or amber.
The issue has been a sticking point between member states, with the Commission formally opening infringement proceedings against the nutrition label back in October 2014 after several member states, led by Italy, claimed it represented a barrier to trade, failed to offer clear and scientifically sound nutritional guidance and unfairly discriminated against certain products while favouring others.
A spokesperson for the Commission told FoodNavigator this infringement procedure, which concerned the traffic light’s compatibility with the EU labelling regulation, is on-going and was unable to comment further.
But Italy raised the issue once more this week at a meeting of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council. Speaking in Italian at a parallel press conference, organised by Italian food industry group Federalimentare and the farmers association Colidretti, Italian agriculture minister Maurizio Martina slammed the traffic light label for classifying foods with “questionable parameters”.
“How is it possible that a litre of whole milk has a red light, while a diet soda with artificial sweeteners has all green? [It is] a paradox which explains how this is not a tool to protect consumers’ health.
“It is unacceptable that quality products certified PDO and PGI are classified with a red light, as happens with other foods that are part of the Mediterranean diet, such as fish and olive oil, or the great Italian tradition of sweets," he continued.
Martina also said the label was negatively affecting trade and referred to the results of a recent Nomisma survey commissioned by Federalimentare.
The survey found sales and market share for PDO Parma ham, parmesan and French brie cheese fell after being labelled with a red traffic light due to high salt and fat levels. This ranged from an 8% fall in sales for brie to 14% for Parma ham and 13% for parmesan, according to the report.
President of Coldiretti, Roberto Moncalvo, said the label had an uptake of 98% among British supermarkets.
Meanwhile a statement issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry Policies cited a 2014 YouGov survey of over 2000 Brits, which found seven out of ten British consumers interpreted a red light to signal ‘do not buy’ rather than ‘consume in moderation’.
According to food law consultant Luca Bucchini, the case is not as simple as the Italian government and food industry may suggest.
“On one hand, Italy's case seems straightforward - even if additional market studies are warranted, traffic lights may result in discrimination against some Italian products,” he said, adding that lawyers could argue member states cannot be prevented from protecting public health, even if this requires a modification of dietary habits.
“[However] Mr Martina's argument is less convincing when he mentions Italian sweet confectionery, which cannot be compared to Parmigiano Reggiano or Prosciutto di Parma. And those who have fought nutrient profiles at the EU level may re-consider what they have really achieved," Bucchini told FoodNavigator.
“What is disappointing about this issue is that, despite years of pan-European nutrition research, despite EFSA [the European Food Safety Authority], it has not been possible to have a scientific debate, followed by a consensus sufficient to underpin a compromise. […]It's hard to believe that a proportionate solution - through dialogue - can't be found.”
The Italian Ministry says it has the support of fifteen other EU member states on the issue: Croatia, Belgium, Cyprus, Spain, Greece, Slovenia, Portugal, Luxembourg, Bulgaria, Poland, Ireland, Romania, Germany, Slovakia and Latvia.