Defining absinthe gives EU headache as MEPs put health first

Image caption In France absinthe is mixed with water and poured through a sugar lump

A vote by the European Parliament has left the EU divided over how to define absinthe, the intensely alcoholic drink nicknamed "the green fairy".

Absinthe inspired poets and artists, like Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire and Edouard Manet - and has given regulators headaches for decades.

After its heyday in the 19th Century it was the subject of a long ban in much of Europe, only lifted in recent years.

Today it is produced across Europe, from Italy to the Czech Republic.

The drink comes in a variety of colours and flavours.

The latest attempt by the European Commission to define and standardise absinthe has been blocked by the European Parliament in Strasbourg, in a resolution adopted by 409 votes to 247, with 19 abstentions.

At issue is whether absinthe needs to contain minimum levels of two substances - anethole and the chemical thujone, a toxin extracted from wormwood, which reputedly has mind-altering effects.

The Commission proposed that anything labelled absinthe must contain thujone and suggested minimum and maximum levels of five to 35 milligrams per kilogram.

Health concerns

But many MEPs, like the German conservative Horst Schnellhardt, are concerned about possible health risks. They say thujone is "not an indispensable characteristic" of absinthe.

MEPs also opposed moves by the Commission to make anethole, a component which gives the drink its aniseed flavour, an essential ingredient.

They argued that some traditional recipes, which depend on regional availability of herbs and plants, do not include anethole. And they pointed out that consumer tastes differ from country to country.

But the centre-right French MEP Francoise Grossetete, who supports the Commission proposals, says the resolution blocking standardisation undermines the very essence of absinthe.

"Accepting the sale of a drink under the 'absinthe' label without the guarantee that the plant of that name was used to make it amounts to cheating," she said.

"Baudelaire would turn in his grave."

In Brasserie L'Absinthe in Strasbourg, the chef David says the drink, traditionally served mixed with water and a sugar lump, has a particular charm.

"It is very representative of French culture," he said.

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