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Foods (Labelling And Advertising)

Volume 393: debated on Tuesday 9 November 1943

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A White Paper has been issued to-day explaining the Regulations which have been made to enable my Noble Friend to protect the consumer against false and misleading claims regarding the quality of foodstuffs. A part of the problem was dealt with by the Food Substitutes Order, which, in 1941, restricted the manufacture or sale of food substitutes. But it is not possible under that Order to take action in respect of products which are not food substitutes, and there has so far been no power to prevent exaggerated claims being made for products which, though harmless, have low nutritional value and which carry labels grossly misrepresenting the nature of the product. His Majesty's Government are of opinion that the consumer is entitled to protection against such misleading claims. With the reduction in the quantity and variety of food supplies available, it is necessary to provide this protection, especially in the case of products intended for mothers, children and adolescents. The powers which the new Regulations confer, with a single exception to which I will refer later, go no further than the powers which Parliament contemplated should be exercised under certain sections of the Food and Drugs Act, 1938, and the Sale of Food (Weights and Measures) Act, 1926.

Section 6 of the Food and Drugs Act forbids the advertising or labelling of food in a false or misleading way and the provisions of this Section are reproduced in substantially identical terms in Regulation 1. Similarly, Regulation 2 transfers to my Noble Friend the power at present exercised by the Minister of Health under Section 8 of the Food and Drugs Act to stipulate the manner in which various foods are to be labelled and to regulate the composition of any food. It also transfers to my Noble Friend the power of the Board of Trade under Section 9 of the Sale of Food (Weights and Measures) Act, 1926, to require any pre-packed food to be labelled with an indication of its weight or measure. The only additional power conferred by these Regulations, not previously approved by the House is included in Regulation 2. This gives power to restrict
"the making in advertisements of food of claims or suggestions of the presence in the food of vitamins or minerals."
As the House is aware, the Government have during the war given continuous attention to nutrition. It is unfortunate that some—a small minority—of manufacturers should have been tempted to exploit the national nutritional policy. Reputable food manufacturers, no less than scientists and members of the medical profession, recognise the harm that is being done by misleading advertisements of this nature and it is with the object of bringing them to an end that the new powers have been taken by Order in Council. The enforcement of any specific Orders which may be issued under these powers will be entrusted to local authorities, but they will be required, unless it is otherwise provided in the Orders my Noble Friend will make, to obtain his consent before proceedings are taken. The main purpose of this provision will be to ensure that proceedings are taken against the manufacturer who is responsible for the false description and not against a large number of retailers through whom the product reaches the public.

May I ask my hon. Friend whether he will take steps to see that any of the instructions which are imposed upon producers shall be indicated in legible print, so that the public will know what they are?

What part, if any, will be taken by local food control committees in the administration of this new Order?

As I indicated in the reply, the matter of enforcement will be in the hands of the local authorities and not of the local food control committees.

In view of the hon. Gentleman's statement that the responsibility for prosecution will largely rest with local authorities, and the fact that most of the people responsible—the manufacturers of these spurious goods—may be, perhaps, hundreds of miles away from the locality where the offence is discovered—[An HON. MEMBER: "Or members of the council."]—how does the hon. Gentleman propose to see that the matter is worked satisfactorily, and the local authority placed in a position to take proceedings against firms which may be situated many miles away from their area?

I think that is clearly a point that must be carefully borne in mind. It will be possible for either the local authority or the Department to undertake prosecutions.

As it is a question of the Ministry taking to themselves powers which supersede in Scotland the powers of the Department of Health, is the hon. Gentleman aware that it is impossible for local authorities to prosecute anyone who has manufactured goods not within the local authority's immediate jurisdiction?

I see no reference in my answer to the Secretary of State for Scotland. I should like to have notice of the specific point that the hon. Member raises.

The Regulation will, of course, lie and can be discussed if Ube House wishes.

Will the hon. Gentleman clear up a point which seems a little indistinct? The offence will be discovered in the area of the local authority where the food is sold. If a prosecution is to take place by another local authority, who gets in touch with the other local authority, or does the Minister instruct the other local authority to prosecute, because in the area where the thing is manufactured there may be no sale at all?

It is the intention of the Department to keep a close watch on this matter.

Will the hon. Gentleman answer my question? I do not see how you are going to get the other local authority to prosecute if no offence has taken place by selling the article within the other local authority's boundary.

That has been borne in mind. It will be adequately dealt with, and there will not be the difficulty that the hon. Member foresees.

Are we to understand that the only reason for taking this step is to secure that prosecutions shall lie in the proper place?

As I explained in my statement, this is mainly a transfer of powers already existing. Local authorities at present have a similar responsibility to what they will have under this Regulation.

Who will bear the cost of these prosecutions? Local authorities frequently hesitate because of the cost.

Can the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that his Department, or the Ministry of Health, will give adequate facilities for analysis so as to enable local authorities to bring prosecutions?

Will it be provided that stocks already in retailers' shops will be recalled?

That point has been borne in mind. I could not give a binding undertaking that very large stocks may go on being sold for a long time, but the Order will be operated so as not to involve undue hardship.