The "traffic-light" system, announced in June, has been praised by UK health campaigners but has proved rather more indigestible in Rome, where one food scientist declared that if the British did not want to exacerbate their "already terrible eating habits," they should consider embracing a diet that has been proved to work: the Mediterranean one.
Concerned that the labelling could imperil its national products, the Italian government has raised the issue with the European commission and is also discussing it with other European countries. In a letter to EU health commissioner Tonio Borg in June, health minister Beatrice de Lorenzin said the traffic-light labelling "dealt with the characteristics of products in a superficial way and risks discriminating against our traditional foods."
Paolo de Castro, head of the European parliament's agriculture committee, said more labelling was necessary, but that the traffic-light method -- which divides a food's nutritional content into fat, saturated fat, salt, sugar and calories, and then colour-codes it red, amber and green according to the levels -- was not the way forward.
"All of us want more information for the consumer… The consumer should know everything. Every piece of information should be there," he said. "But the traffic-light system seeks to influence people's choices."
De Castro said the policy was "against the Mediterranean food culture", and that other countries, including Spain and Greece, were affected by it as well.
A former Italian agriculture minister, he submitted a written question to the European parliament last month urging the commission to verify that the new labels were "objective and non-discriminatory" and not contrary to EU rules. He said that, though theoretically voluntary, the practice had been rolled out by the UK government in a way that did not leave much room for choice.
The new, more comprehensive labelling strategy is in use in major retailers across the UK, including Tesco, Sainsbury's, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and the Co-op. It is intended to give consumers the information they need to make educated choices about what they eat.
A 2011 report found that 61% of adults in England were overweight or obese, a higher proportion than in almost all other developed nations.
The move has provoked fury from Italy's agriculture and food industry bodies, which say it encourages a "technical" approach to food that steers consumers away from evaluating foods as part of a balanced diet.
"Some types of food products -- among them cheeses, meats, confectionary products and jams… would, according to the new guidelines of the [British] department [of health], be placed in the group identified by the colour red … But it is not the product in itself but its incorrect consumption which is harmful: [they] can be eaten in absolute tranquillity as long as you don't go over the top," said Mario Guidi, president of Confagricoltura, an Italian agriculture body.BGiorgio Calabrese, a doctor specialising in food science, said the traffic-light labelling was "an absurd suggestion" that made no scientific sense and risked "further worsening the already terrible eating habits of the English".
"The [British] government's policy is wrong," he told the Italian newspaper La Stampa, saying he even suspected the move of being "an economic manoeuvre aimed at damaging our products and promoting theirs".
He added: "Instead of doing battle with our food culture, they should learn from us and embrace the Mediterranean diet … Dear English friends … choose our food.
"We are one of the world's longest-living peoples precisely because we understand the art of eating well and in moderation.
"To fight obesity you don't need stickers but a healthy and balanced diet. Do as we do."
The Department of Health did not comment.