New Health Warning on Wine Labels Has Many French Seeing Red

French wine sold in the United States will not carry the French government's new warning against drinking alcohol while pregnant.
French wine sold in the United States will not carry the French government's new warning against drinking alcohol while pregnant. (By Robert J. Gurecki -- Delaware County Daily Times Via Associated Press)
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 29, 2007

PARIS -- The label on the bottle of Chateau du Bois de la Garde offers advice for serving (perfect with game, grilled meat or cheese), gives the vintner's credentials (fourth-generation wine grower) and describes the characteristics of the wine (delicate, with red fruit flavors).

Beginning this month, the elegant cream-colored label also includes a mandatory warning -- a silhouette of a pregnant woman holding a glass with the universal red slash mark, meaning "no," across her bulging belly.

In a country where wine labels are accorded a status somewhere between a sacred text and a work of art, the new warning logo has been received about as warmly as a moldy cork in an expensive bottle of Bordeaux.

"It's stupid, in my opinion," said Maryline Dabin, whose small wine shop does a brisk business two blocks from the Eiffel Tower. "If you're pregnant, you already know it's a danger to drink. If you want to drink anyway, this picture is not going to stop you."

The years-long battle to require French vintners to put health warning labels -- including an icon no bigger than the head of a pencil eraser -- on the nation's most famous product is the latest skirmish in a Europe-wide governmental assault on expanding waistlines, high alcohol consumption and the Continental love affair with cigarettes.

The Netherlands' minister for health, welfare and sport has proposed a "fat tax" on unhealthy foods such as candy and potato chips, similar to the taxes imposed on alcohol and tobacco products. The European Commission is asking food manufacturers to accept a code of conduct governing advertising aimed at children.

The mayor of the northwestern Italian town of Varallo recently challenged residents to a group diet with financial incentives: $70 to every man who drops nine pounds and to every woman who sheds seven pounds within a month. If they keep the weight off for five months, the city will hand them another $285.

With the French increasingly losing their reputation for staying healthy despite the national passion for champagne and chocolate, the government has launched health wars on multiple fronts. This year, France began requiring all advertising for junk food, from candy bars to frozen French fries, to include admonishments to consumers to eat more fruit and vegetables, exercise more and stop snacking so much.

Of all the clashes between health advocates and powerful lobbies, none has been more bruising than the French debate over health and wine. The government has been pushing the warning labels for years, concerned that alcohol was the second-largest cause of preventable death in France and responsible for at least 3,000 cases of fetal alcohol syndrome each year.

Parliament approved the warning labels last year and gave wine and liquor bottlers 12 months to comply with the new rule. Producers have the choice of using a written warning or the small logo of the pregnant woman.

At a time when French wines are facing growing competition from new wine-producing countries, and with domestic wine consumption dropping, producers are angry at what they see as yet another attack on their industry.

"This logo has a direct effect on the image of the product," said Delphine Blanc, director of the influential Wine and Society Association. "We put a negative message on the product while it's people's behaviors that have to be regulated, not the products."

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