Recent regulatory measures by Italy againstimported wheat, chocolate and poultryhave raised questions over whether the country isusing the EU's food safety and labelling laws tobatter down foreign competition.
Certainly the country seems very vigorous oncracking down on food safety, especially when it comesto foreign produced products. Those moves along withrecent labelling decisions have all led to variouscomments from the EU, Canada and the US, questioningthe country's motives.
The latest regulatory action was the confiscationof 58,000 tonnes of Canadian durum wheat at the portof Bari. Most of the wheat was destined for use inpasta making. Police also arrested Francesco Casillo,the head of Molino Casillo, one of Europe's largestmillers.
The arrest followed the discovery that wheatimported from Canada had three times the allowablelimit of ocratoxin, a carcinogenicsubstance.
However Canadian Wheat Board spokesperson MaureenFitzhenery was quoted in the Globe and Mail newspaperyesterday as stating that the wheat had been testedand found safe before leaving for Italy.
She also cast doubt on Italy's testing methods andspeculated over whether there was a political motivebehind the grain seizure. Fitzhenry noted the resultscame up in a durum-producing region of Italy wherelocal farmers are known to be unhappy about theimportation of foreign wheat.
Now the US Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) hasnoted that a cargo of US durum bought by Barilla, anItalian pasta maker, was also delayed at another portin the same region, called Apulia.
In a published report on 13 January the FAS officesaid that analyses of the wheat had already taken 20days, much longer than usual. The cargo was unloaded and remains stored under seal until inspections arecompleted.
The office noted that the Casillo event had createdan "overall adverse climate and undue concernover wheat imports" for wheat exporters.
"This event has sparked public comment by politicians and farm groups, who, in this electionyear, are using it to trumpet the usual refrain of thesuperiority of Italian agricultural products, and theevils of imports," the FAS stated.
Italy cited food safety concerns last October toput in place a law requiring all poultry products tobelabelled with the country of origin of all meat, theID code of the farm where theanimal was raised, the ID code of the slaughter plant, the expiry date or the lot number.
Since the law also applies to poultry from EU member countries the European Commission has since officially raising concerns about the compliance of the measures with the bloc's internal market competition rules.
The EU Commission observed that the Italian measures breach article 28 of the Treaty establishing the EU as it would pose extra burdens on products imported from other member states, therefore being equivalent to a quantitative restriction, according to an analysis by the FAS.
"It is almost certain that the Commission will formally rule that the provisions constitute state aid and might even decide to initiate an infringement procedure against Italy," the FAS stated.
Italy has been at the forefront of measures against avian flu, having already experienced an outbreak that began in 1999. Italy's law was part of a packet of measures thegovernment took in response to the discovery of avian influenza in wild birds and poultry in neighbouring countries last year.
Avian flu influenza was discovered in flocks in Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Turkey and Greece late last year. It has now reared up with a vengeance in the new year, with Turkey reporting four human deaths.
Over the weekend Italy stepped up controls at sites that could be at risk from the disease by seizing 30,000 chickens and 4,000 eggs. Police also closed down three domestic egg packaging plants.
Italy is also in another labelling dispute with the European Commission over the definition of "pure chocolate". The Italian parliament voted last week to uphold its definition of 'pure chocolate' in the face of opposition from the Commission.
The vote upholds Italy's definition of who may use the 'pure chocolate' label. The definition only allows chocolate products with 100 per cent cocoa butters to be called 'pure chocolate.' Natural flavourings and soya lecithin are allowed.
Italy introduced the special 'pure chocolate' label in 2003 to protect domestic chocolate makers. Products containing vegetable fats other than cocoa butter, originating in the UK, Ireland and Denmark, had to be marketed within Italian territory as "chocolate substitute".
The EU allows chocolate makers to use up to five per cent vegetable cocoa substitutes and thus has ruled that the labelling is discriminatory against foreign imports.
The European Court of Justice ruled against Italy in 2003 over the attempt to make "pure chocolate" even purer. On 11 January he Italian Ministry for EU Policies presented a proposal to parliament to make Italian chocolate labelling and marketing rules compliant with the EU competition regulations.
The parliament rejected the proposal with a bipartisan vote.
Members of Italy's ruling government and the opposition have been particularly keen on a campaign to convince the public that they are behind domestic producers. Government recently convinced some foreign and domestic supermarkets to put in "Buy Italian" food sections in the stores.