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Wine wars: How ‘absurd’ cancer labels have pitched Ireland against Europe

Sandro Boscaini’s eyes are filled with incredulity. The Italian winemaker tells us that sometimes, he wakes up in the middle of the night with shock. “Thinking… wow, why? It’s possible!

It is Ireland’s controversial plan for health warning labels to be added to alcohol products.

The legislation, when it is enacted will see bottles placed on Irish shelves, including Sandro’s, bearing stark warnings about liver disease and deadly cancers.

The labels were printed in red capital letters using Times New Roman font and have led to a full-blown diplomatic spat.


Masi Agricola’s headquarters is in the Valpolicella wine area of northern Italy. It’s quiet, but not too quiet.

This time of year, the vines are not in full bloom and most of the work involved in harvesting and growing them is lost. Masi is an important operation.

It is listed on the Borsa Italiana stock exchange in Milan. The company produces approximately 12 million bottles per year and exports to 140 countries including Ireland.

Masi’s president is Sandro, the sixth generation of Boscaini families to run the 250-year-old company.

The man who is known as Mr Amarone, standing in front of oak barrels in one his cellars, is clearly appalled that his favorite wines pose a risk to his health.

He points out that “The Mediterranean diet does not say you shouldn’t drink alcohol.”

It says, “Don’t drink alcohol.” We know that we are the longest living people after the Japanese. Why’s that? Because alcohol can cause cancer. “Come on!”

Image Masi Agricola’s boss says that the plan is stupid

He exhorts Ireland to “stop, because it’s a stupidity and an insult to what we ancestors have done centuries ago”.

The Irish government doesn’t listen.

The deadline for the European Commission’s objection to the plan was met, but the European Commission did not act despite objections by at least nine members states, including France, Spain, and Italy.

The Irish government claims that the new regulations, which are part of the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018, are key to reducing alcohol use in Ireland and easing the burden on the public healthcare system.

“An attack upon the Mediterranean diet”

The Italian government is not in agreement, and it does so in the strongest terms.

Antonio Tajani, the country’s foreign minister, called the labelling “absurd” as well as an “attack against the Mediterranean diet, which forms a fundamental part our economy.”

Reporters were told by Mr Tajani that he had voiced his concerns with Micheal Martin in Dublin and that he explained to Martin how “dangerous” the message from Dublin was. The response of Mr Martin was not recorded.

Image In 2021, Italy was the largest European wine producer.

Luis Planas, the Spanish agriculture minister, has asked EU countries to file a joint complaint with the World Trade Organisation.

The draft legislation from Ireland is currently being reviewed to determine if it violates the European single market rules.

This means that a “standstill” period is in place, which means that Stephen Donnelly, the Irish health minister, cannot sign the regulations before May.

The CEEV, an EU wine producer’s organization, threatened legal action.

Ingacio Recarte, its head, stated that it was time for WTO partners to voice their concerns about the Irish proposal. Will Ireland listen or remain blind to EU partners’ comments, or both?

“In the absence European Commission action, little can be done.” It seems that only the European Court of Justice could defend the EU at this point.

Image Other countries could adopt the concept.

Coldiretti, Italy’s largest farmers’ association, described the “terrifying” warnings as an “direct attack” on the country.

Coldiretti’s Paolo di Stefano said that “we consider this to be a dangerous precedent on European level” and that “these terrifying warning labels aren’t the right way for the consumer to be informed properly.”

He said that it was a breach of the internal markets rules because it will distort commerce. If this example is followed by other member countries, it will also have a significant economic impact on Italian wine producers.”

“The science is very clear”

The Irish plan won the support of all European public health advocates.

Florence Berteletti, an Italian secretary general of European Alcohol Policy Alliance, stated that “the science is very clear” that alcohol causes cancer.

“Two people die every minute from alcohol in our region [Europe]”

She said that Ireland, which was the first country to ban smoking in workplaces in 2004, is leading the charge in public health.

Image Dublin Restaurant Owner Luca De Marzio said he was’really shocked by’ the plan.

“Ireland is the hero of the public health community. She says that Ireland is the first, but other countries will follow her lead.

“We will win the battle, I am sure. The government of Ireland is a hero for having introduced smoke-free 20 years ago. They are heroes again, because they were the first to do so.

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Some of her Irish compatriots disagree.

Luca De Marzio owns the Rosa Madre restaurant in Dublin. It’s difficult to miss the wine bottles that line the walls above the heads of diners at Rosa Madre. His finer vintages are stored in two fingerprint-protected cellars.

“I couldn’t believe it to have been honest,” Luca said about the labelling plan.

“I was shocked by it. You can see that bottles are all over this place. It’s strange to imagine signs of cancer in a place you visit for pleasure.

“We don’t deserve being treated like tobacco”

He believes such warnings are ineffective in dealing with alcohol abuse.

The restauranteur says, “I quit smoking last year, but not because of the cancer warning on the packet of cigarettes.”

“An alcoholic does not drink wine bottles by the glass at a restaurant. I believe there are other solutions to the problem than labeling the wine with cancer warnings. Instead of penalising the entire industry, invest in education or give people a new hobby.

Luca, who is originally from Rome, says it’s not only his home country that wants to challenge Ireland’s new regulations.

“Obviously, Italians are passionate about it. But I’m sure they won’t be the only ones complaining.

Image It is possible for other wine-producing countries to also challenge the plan.

“I am sure that all Europe, Spain and France will eventually be unhappy. A few wine importers told me that they are in the same boat as me on this.

They don’t belong in the same category with tobacco.

The World Health Organisation has declared that alcohol is a carcinogen.

The Irish government is determined to continue with its warning labels for alcohol products and wants to be seen as a leader on this issue.

It will not be easy.

The great wine-producing countries of Europe will continue to consider their legal and diplomatic options to stop Ireland’s “dangerous” plan.


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