ROME — Italians do love their wild boar pasta and thick Florentine steaks. So it is no wonder that not long after Chiara Appendino, the new mayor of Turin, announced that she would like to see her northern Italian town become the country’s first “vegan city,” Elvira Savino, an opposing politician, announced she had a beef with that. Then Savino promptly introduced a law that would make raising children on a vegan diet a crime.
Under the proposed legislation (PDF), which will be debated in parliament this fall, parents who raise a child on a vegan diet could face a year in prison if their child is over 3 years of age, and two years in prison if the child is younger. The sentence increases to four years if the vegan child develops a serious health condition, and up to seven years if the child dies from anything related to malnourishment.
This is not as far-fetched as at first it might seem. The law has a chance of passing.
Support for it gained traction this summer after two children in northern Italian towns were hospitalized due to vitamin deficiencies thought to be tied to their enforced vegan diets. In late June, a 2-year-old girl in Genoa was treated in an intensive care unit of a local hospital after she became unresponsive. Doctors said she suffered from severely low hemoglobin and an extreme B12 deficiency. Her parents were investigated by social services and, though not charged with any crimes, advised that if their child falls ill again under similar circumstances, they could be charged with neglect.
A few weeks later, a 1-year-old boy was nearly removed from his home in Milan after a local judge there ruled that his parents’ vegan diet was detrimental to his health and “incompatible” with the growing child’s nutritional needs. The child was breastfed by his vegan mother for most of the first year of his life, and the judge ruled that his mother’s milk was not sufficiently nourishing. The child weighed just 11 pounds, more in line with a 3-month-old baby, and far less than a child that age should weigh. The parents must now prove that they are providing high-protein alternatives and supplements that include meat and fish or risk losing their child to foster care.
For all that, veganism is growing in popularity in Italy. According to the health ministry around 2.9 percent of Italians subscribe to the strict dietary lifestyle which avoids all animal foods, not only meat, poultry, fish and shellfish, but also eggs, milk, and honey. (More than 7 percent of Italians are vegetarian, which is rather less demanding.)
Italian health authorities do not recommend a vegan diet for growing children. In the Italian school system, parents can only ask that their child be given a vegan school lunch if they have a medical certificate that states specifically the child’s medical condition, which must be an allergy or intolerance, that prohibits them from eating foods made from animals, especially milk and cheese products, which are considered staples for Italian children.
When Appendino, who is from the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement party, introduced her vegan program for Turin, she noted the importance of education in adopting the vegan lifestyle and said she would dedicate her mandate to education in this area. “The promotion of vegan and vegetarian diets is a fundamental act in safeguarding our environment, the health of our citizens and the welfare of our animals,” her program states. “Leading medical, nutritional and political experts will help promote a culture of respect in our schools, teaching children how to eat well while protecting the earth and animal rights.”
The law introduced by Savino, who is from Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia center-right party, would not make veganism illegal, but it would make it virtually impossible for parents to impose the dietary lifestyle on children under the age of 16.
“I have nothing against vegans or veganism as long as it is a free choice by adults,” she told Reuters. “I just find it absurd that some parents are allowed to impose their will on children in an almost fanatical, religious way, often without proper scientific knowledge or medical consultation. ‘Do-it-yourself’ on these matters is what terrorizes me.”
The International Vegan Rights Alliance has condemned the proposed law, calling it “unfair, extremely misguided and discriminatory” in an open letter to Savino, and threatening to take the battle for veganism to the European Commission of Human Rights if the law passes.
If the law does pass, it could theoretically also pave the way to other legislation that protects children, including laws that would make a diet of fast food or excessive sweets illegal, or that would prohibit children from sipping wine at their parents’ dinner table. By law, children over the age of 10 in Italy are allowed to consume alcoholic beverages like beer and wine if a parent or guardian is with them.
Andrea Ghiselli, president of the Italian Society of Food Science, argues that any legislation should encompass all bad food choices. “Why just focus on a tiny fraction of society that imposes veganism on children?” he says. “Why not make illegal all the bad food choices parents make for their children?”