Life Sciences and Healthcare

Italy bans lab-grown meat, violating EU procedure

Published on 3rd May 2024

In December 2023, the Italian government implemented a ban on cultivated meats, restricting both the production and marketing of these products. The Italian bill was subject to EU scrutiny, as the EU is also considering this type of novel food. However, the law was adopted before the end of the standstill period laid down by Directive (EU) 2015/1535, and in doing so, Italy violated a key EU scrutiny procedure.

Cultivated meats, also known as lab-grown meats, are produced by culturing animal cells, eliminating the need for traditional livestock farming. This technology offers an appealing solution for consumers who wish to reduce the environmental impact of their diet without completely eliminating meat from their meals.

The ban itself

Within Italy, agribusinesses have expressed concerns that the growing focus on the environmental consequences of consuming meat will affect their profits, while farming associations have been campaigning for the ban, stating that cultivated meats pose a risk to Italian agriculture.

The bill sought to address these problems, stating that "synthetic food represents a dangerous means of destroying every link with natural food and different lands by cancelling every cultural distinction, often thousands of years old". Italy's Agricultural Minister, Francesco Lollobrigida, declared that this legislation has made Italy "the world's first country safe from the social and economic risks of synthetic food".

In any case, these products (defined as cell-based and classifiable as novel foods under Regulation (EU) 2015/2283) would not be placed on the EU market until they have undergone an authorisation procedure by the European Commission, which includes a safety assessment by EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority.

The ban, proposed by the government and backed by 159 votes to 53 in Parliament, prohibits the production, sale and importation of cultivated meat and animal feed into Italy.

In addition to banning cultivated meat, the legislation also restricts the use of terms such as "salami" or "steak" for plant-based products. In particular, the ban concerns the use of: a) legal, customary and descriptive designations referring to meat, meat products or products made predominantly from meat; b) references to animal species or groups of animal species or animal morphology or animal anatomy; c) terminologies specific to the meat, cured meat and seafood industries; d) names of foodstuffs of animal origin used in trade.

A full list of prohibited designations had to be provided by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, Food Sovereignty and Forestry within 60 days from the entering into force of Law 172/2023 (that is, it was due by 16 February 2024). To date, the relevant decree has not yet been issued and, in some recent interviews and hearings, Mr Francesco Lollobrigida did not rule out backtracking on this point.

The Italian bill sets out fines of up to €150,000 for companies that violate these provisions.

The EU position

The European Commission has announced that the ban on cultivated meat violated a key EU scrutiny procedure as the Italian government pushed the ban through without the opinion of the Commission or other Member States.

Where any country in the EU has drafted a law that could hinder the European single market, other Member States should be given the opportunity to comment before it is enacted. This is under what is known as the TRIS directive, which aims to stop regulatory barriers within the EU's internal market.

The bill in Italy was subject to a TRIS procedure, according to which, starting from the date of notification, a three-month standstill period would enable the Commission and the other Member States to examine the notified text and to respond appropriately. The Italian law, however, was adopted before the end of this standstill period, despite the questions around the legality of the proposed ban. This meant that the European Commission was only able to review the law after it was passed, which was a breach of EU law.

At the moment, lab-grown meat has only been approved for human consumption in the US and Singapore. The EU is still considering whether cultivated meats, which are classified as "novel foods", should be granted approval.

If the EU does approve these products, Italy's new law could face a challenge from the European Commission. This is because if a company received EU regulatory approval for a cultivated meat product and proceeds to sell it in Italy, under EU law, efforts to stop them could be challenged in court (in addition, in the light of relevant case law from the Court of Justice of the EU, a law adopted in breach of the obligation to respect the standstill period can be declared inapplicable to individuals by national courts).

Osborne Clarke comment

With an EU decision pending, the future of lab-grown meats remains uncertain.

The Italian bill introduces a ban which is, at least, premature and appears to ignore the risks of a potential abrupt halt to research activities and a major obstacle to the development and growth of Italian food companies. Italian consumers could also be damaged, since their options and freedom of choice would be significantly reduced. We will continue to monitor this situation closely and look forward to further developments in light of the EU Commission's call for the Italian government to inform them of the legislative follow-up.

For now, Italy's ban on both cultivated meats and using words associated with meat for plant-based products seems to be part of a broader trend across mainland Europe. France recently banned 21 terms for plant-based products so the associations cannot be made with meat, and the Polish government followed with a decree that could lead to similar restrictions as those in Italy. With this in mind, it will be interesting to see any developments in appetite for the products over the coming months.

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* This article is current as of the date of its publication and does not necessarily reflect the present state of the law or relevant regulation.

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