By ALESSANDRA RIZZO
ROME (AP) -- To Italians, Nutella is much more than chocolate-hazelnut spread. It's a cultural icon, the subject of memorable movie scenes, books and song lines.
So it's no wonder that the mere suggestion that stricter European food labeling rules could harm the beloved product would have Italians up in arms.
The European Parliament approved a draft measure this week requiring all processed foods to have fat, salt and sugar contents clearly labeled on packaging, mostly on the front. The initiative is aimed at fighting obesity and giving consumers more informed choices.
The legislation, which requires final approval the EU's executive body, was seen as a compromise because the parliament rejected a related measure that would have required food with lots of fat, sugar or salt -- like Nutella -- to carry red warning stickers.
Still, it has touched a nerve with food producers, which advocate less strict guidelines, and consumer groups and leftist parliament members, who wanted stronger steps such as the red "traffic light" warnings.
But to Italians, it's all about Nutella and the fear that the EU might be scaring consumers away from the one of their culinary joys.
A government official launched a "Hands off Nutella" committee, quickly supported by the governor of Nutella's home base in Piedmont. The Cabinet minister for EU affairs warned against the risk of "nutritionist fundamentalism."
"Nutella Battle in Europe," wrote La Stampa on Thursday, while other papers featured photos of boys sinking their teeth into Nutella sandwiches.
Nutella is produced by chocolate maker Ferrero. Since 1964, when it first came out, it has been a favorite of Italians and a classic snack for generations of children. Over the years, its appeal has grown far beyond kids.
In a scene that has become a classic of Italian cinema, actor-director Nanni Moretti drowns his sorrows in a giant Nutella jar in the movie "Bianca." Italian chansonnier Giorgio Gaber, in a song poking fun of this nation's obsession with "Right" and "Left," concluded that Nutella is "still left-wing." Perhaps that's why leftist leader Walter Veltroni makes no secret of his passion for the chocolate spread.
To its fans, the appeal of Nutella is summed up by its longtime ad: "What world would this be without Nutella?"
Ferrero, while recognizing that the regulations would not amount to a ban on Nutella, says the EU approach carries "risks." The company's vice-president, Paolo Fulci, said in a statement that over time it could "influence even the habits and the most intimate aspects of one's personal sphere, like the genuine and healthy pleasures that are passed among generations."
But Europe, like the United States, is becoming more health conscious and several countries are taking official steps to promote a better diet.
Denmark and Austria have made artery-clogging trans-fats illegal; Britain, Norway and Sweden have banned junk food commercials from TV at certain times of the day; Romania recently proposed taxes on burgers, french fries, soda and other fast foods with high fat and sugar content.
The "traffic light" scheme in particular has been a point of contention.
Consumers groups and anti-obesity campaigners were disappointed that the measure was rejected. Food producers, while recognizing the consumers' right to be informed, appeared relieved.
"Traffic lights do not belong on foods," Juergen Abraham, chief of the German food producers association BVE, said in a written statement Friday.
By contrast, Britain's Children's Food Campaign chastised the rejection of the warnings as "yet another set back in the fight against childhood obesity."
"With over half of Europeans and more than 60 percent of people in the UK now overweight, this outcome is a massive blow for consumers," said the group's chief, Mike Rayner.
The new EU measures would also require protein, fiber and transfat levels to be shown on labels. And they seek to crack down on misleading marketing and advertising. For example, one amendment says packages cannot claim that an item offers a substantial reduction in sugar or fat if the overall calorie content is not reduced.
The measure was approved 559-54 with 32 abstentions. It goes next to the European Council, the European Union's executive body, which must give the final OK.
Large food companies would have three years to start applying the law, while small producers would have five years and are exempt from some of its measures.
To some consumers, the secret to healthy nutrition simply lies in moderation.
"Sure, consumers must be informed, but nobody has ever died from Nutella," said Giuseppe Puccicca in Rome. "All you need to do is eat a little less of it."
Associated Press Writer Angela Charlton in Paris, Sylvia Hui in London, Verena Schmitt-Roschmann in Berlin and Leonardo Moauro in Rome contributed to this report.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.