Reuters International

FILE PHOTO: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi takes part in a European People Party (EPP) summit in St Julian's, Malta, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

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ROME (Reuters) - Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has infuriated Italy's meat industry by joining a vegetarian campaign and "adopting" five lambs that would have been butchered for Easter.

A video by the Italian League in Defence of Animals and the Environment, showing Berlusconi cuddling, kissing and feeding the lambs with a baby's bottle, was circulated widely on social media over the weekend.

The 80-year-old four-times prime minister was filmed in his parkland estate in front of a sign saying "Defend life, choose a vegetarian Easter", while a scrolling message urged viewers to "Be like him. He saved five lambs from the Easter slaughter."

Berlusconi was expelled from the Senate in 2013 following a conviction for tax fraud, but his Forza Italia party is still the third or fourth most popular in Italy with around 12 percent of the vote, according to opinion polls.

Italians traditionally eat lamb or goat on Easter Sunday but consumption has declined sharply over the last five years due to an economic slump and growing success of vegetarian campaigns.

Italy's butchers' lobby Assocarni attacked the billionaire media tycoon and called on advertisers to boycott his television channels and publications.

"It's incredible that even though he is a business person he is contributing to damaging the meat industry to try to get the votes of animal lovers," it said in a statement.

Several newspapers reported last year that Berlusconi had become a vegetarian. He responded in a statement that he had "never made any declaration on this, either in public or in private", neither confirming nor denying the reports.

Berlusconi has worn a pacemaker for a decade and underwent open heart surgery in June last year to replace a defective aortic valve.

(Reporting by Gavin Jones; editing by Andrew Roche)

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