Food: Beware of Eurofrauds
28 May 2009
Powdered wine, dairy-free cheese, GMO-based organic produce, stateless chickens, orange-less orangeade… – our shopping carts get packed with products that don’t quite fit the description on the label. The fault lies with the EU-imposed labeling regime – under pressure from agribusiness lobbies.
The aberrant item is a laminated cardboard box decked out with a picture of a glorious sunset. It’s called a “wine kit”. You use it to produce your own homemade wine with five sachets of such powdered devilry as freeze-dried grape concentrate, bentonite, potassium bisulfite and potassium sorbate – the latter being preservatives without any further specification. The 28-day process is highly complex, requiring carefully controlled timing, humidity and temperatures. And if you do everything right, you’ll have 40 bottles of Bacchus’ nectar to put in the cellar – for only €40 plus shipping and handling. Also in the pack are “elegant labels” to certify that your glass receptacles contain “barolo”. Powdered barolo, though. So far from its red-grape origins that it even comes in a white-wine variety. Agriculture minister Luca Zaia has rightly ranged the “wine kit” in what he calls the “gallery of horrors”: “snares” rubber-stamped by European standards that try the patience of the Italian consumer. The Coldiretti (a powerful farmers organisation) has improvised a mini-exhibition of these aberrations at a big Brussels hotel, where can check out the dairy-free cheese, the GMO-based organic produce, stateless chickens, orange-less orangeade…. “All the stuff that unthinkingly ends up in your shopping bag,” fumes Sergio Marini, head of the farmers organization. “The major retailers are raking it in playing on the ambiguity of the information.” And there are so many players nowadays in the European collective, where the “in” game of playing national interests off European interests knows no bounds. How about grape-free wine? In Germany and other northern nations, they’ve been making it out of apples, raspberries and redcurrants for years. They call it “wine” in their domestic markets – and have been crusading for the right to carry on, even abroad. Italy initially objected, but then had to resign itself to the inexorable majority vote, which, on any number of agricultural issues, has closed ranks to form a critical mass of 14 (the countries of Northern and Eastern Europe) against 13 (Mediterranean and their neighbouring countries). The only hope is that consumers will actually read the labels and won’t be taken in. Coldiretti and the agro-minister have little faith in that. At the European Council in Brussels, the strongest lobbies prevail: Germany, Scandinavia, France. Almost never Italy, whose agriculture is superior in quality and tradition and lower in price. Berlin fights tooth and nail to defend its industrial-scale breeding operations and vast plantations. Our farmers work smaller holdings. And the whole culture of fighting for one’s rights in Europe is still a young science that has yet to be delivered from the curse that induced the government in the 1980s to accept a nasty deal of dairy quotas in return for steel subsidies. The results are plain to see. Marini wants to keep at Brussels to get protection against the traps being laid for consumers. Against those, for example, who hide behind calls to abolish minimum sizes and standards for fruits and vegetables and are willing to run the risk of letting reject produce hit the market at uncontrollable prices. Or against the dispensation, in force since January, allowing the use of up to 10% casein in the production of cheese. Fair enough. But we shouldn’t lose sight of what Europe has done for our green economy, beginning with the protection of certified products. This July, moreover, will see the introduction of the D.O.C. label for quality olive oil from narrowly designated regions. For producers, this is a triumph. The EU, like all collectives, has its upsides and downsides.