Backlash over Italy's proposal to punish vegan parents

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The animal rights movement has grown in Italy in recent years; this is a protest from 2015. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP
11:33 CEST+02:00
A proposed law to punish parents for raising children on restrictive diets has provoked outrage from the vegan community around the world.

The law was proposed last week by Elvira Savino, a member of Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia party, and received worldwide media attention as she called for "reckless" vegan parents to be punished with jail time for raising their children on restrictive diets.

She commented on the spread of plant-based diets in the last decade, adding that some people follow the diet simply because it has become "fashionable", and that children raised as vegans without proper medical care suffer from their parents' "ideological excesses".

The International Vegan Rights Alliance, Ivra, has written an open letter to Savino, calling her proposal "unfair, extremely misguided and discriminatory" and urging the politician to amend the wording of her bill.

The writers pointed out that there is a legal precedent for veganism to be considered a way of life under the European Commisssion of Human Rights, and is therefore protected by human rights principles. They added that singling out veganism as a cause of malnourishment in children was "discriminatory" due to the fact that there can be many causes for malnourishment, and suggested that she  instead focus on "the broader, more general parental duty to provide children with a healthy and nutritious diet".

“The vegan diet is completely sustainable, even for children, when accompanied by the correct information on the products to consume and checks carried out by a doctor,” said Walter Caporale, president of the Animalisti Italiani organization, in a statement. The statement echoed Ivra in saying that Savino’s proposal was “senseless and illegal”.

Andrea Ghiselli, president of the Italian Society of Food Science, told La Repubblica that while there was no proof a vegan diet was healthier than an omnivorous one, there was also no evidence to show that a vegan diet poses a serious health risk.

"The western diet as it is today exposes us to much greater risks than a vegan diet," said Ghiselli, adding that excesses of sugar, fat and meat products in modern diets can lead to health problems.

Opinion among The Local's readers was mixed, with one reader, Damien O'Farrell saying: "This is outrageous – I know several parents who have raised their children vegan and they are just fine. What about the parents of the fat children who are chowing down on fast-food and other garbage?"

But several others supported the proposal, with another reader, Chrissy Zappella, referring to one of the cases of a child being hospitalized. Zappella wrote: "If your 1-year old gets taken to the hospital weighing ten pounds because of the diet you put her on, yes, you belong in jail."

Savino's proposal is far from guaranteed ever to enter Italian law; it is up against three rival bills which call for vegan and vegetarian options to be made more widely available in canteens, and all four bills must be discussed by parliamentary committees before being debated in the chamber later this year.

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Furthermore, the wording of the proposed law means it could be applied to parents subjecting their children to any kind of diet detrimental to the child's health - including for example excessive sugar or junk food. But in her preamble, Savino focussed on veganism, partly because of several recent cases which have seen young children hospitalized in Italy in serious condition after being raised on the vegan diet.

A vegan diet is not necessarily harmful to children, however if not carefully managed it can lead to malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies such as a lack of vitamin B12, zinc, folic acid and iron, and parents are advised by Italian medical authorities to inform themselves of the risks before choosing to raise their children vegan, and to ensure the children has regular medical check-ups.

In July, a one-year-old who had been raised as vegan and weighed only 5kg was hospitalized in Milan, with a judge ruling that his vegan diet was "incompatible with his young age". In June, a two-year-old spent several days in intensive care for vitamin deficiencies thought to be linked to the vegan diet her parents had raised her on - the third time since the start of 2015 that a young child was hospitalized in serious condition owing to their diet.

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