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ROME (Reuters) - Food-loving Italy responded with indignation on Tuesday to a minister's comments that lunchbreaks -- still a sit-down ritual for many Italian workers -- are bad for waistlines and the economy, and should be skipped.
While many European peers nibble a sandwich at their desk, most Italian workers still retire en masse to a "tavola calda" (buffet restaurant) or a works canteen for a slap-up meal, often an hour-long affair involving pasta or meat, a vegetable dish, fruit and coffee.
But cabinet minister Gianfranco Rotondi said this encourages shirking and obesity, and makes the working day unnecessarily long, meaning parents get home later to see their children.
His comments were front-page news, lampooned by cartoonists and rejected by trade unions rallying around the workers' right to a lunchbreak. Nutritionists warned that if Italians skipped their lunch, they could collapse in the afternoon.
"It is bad for output and also for the harmony of the day. I never liked this ritual which brings Italy to a standstill," the minister said late on Monday.
In the face of the uproar his comments produced -- Michele Gentile of the biggest union, the CGIL, called it "an attack on workers' rights" -- Rotondi later clarified that he had "never proposed abolishing lunchbreaks."
"I only said that I abolished mine 20 years ago. The ideal thing would be for workers to choose," he told reporters.
Italian food producers' association Coldiretti cited a study showing that about 44 percent of Italian workers eat lunch in a restaurant or bar, and about 36 percent in a company canteen, while less than one in five take a packed lunch from home.
The minister, whose cabinet role is the "fulfillment of the government's program," did however propose the closure of the subsidized canteen in parliament, which he said "costs too much to run and makes members of parliament get fat."
Corriere della Sera newspaper recalled that in 1924 dictator Benito Mussolini caught a whiff of cooking in parliament and said disapprovingly: "We come here to make laws, not to eat!"
But nutritionist Pietro Migliaccio warned that Italians "already have a very light breakfast or miss it altogether. If we skipped lunch too we'd risk having a blood sugar crisis in the afternoon, which would make it quite difficult to work."
Writing by Stephen Brown; editing by David Stamp