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Labelling Of Food

Volume 722: debated on Tuesday 21 December 1965

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12.13 a.m.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the labelling of food and toilet preparations, the display of notices in relation to food, and matters connected therewith.
Since I sought to introduce a similar Bill last February, a number of developments have taken place both at home and abroad which show the need for comprehensive food labelling and a fresh examination of the whole question. The Council of Europe, meeting at Strasbourg, has recommended member countries to take more vigorous steps to control by legislation the use of food additives, and it has pointed out that a man eating his favourite food every day, as many people do, may in the course of time build up a normally harmless residue to a dangerous level. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation are setting up an international survey of food additives.

Here at home, the director of the Consumer Council has said that most of the complaints about foodstuffs which the Council receives are now concerned with the lack of information about additives. The Government's own Food Standards Committee has asked for stricter requirements for declaring the chemical additives in food. The British Industrial Biological Research Association is to spend £100,000 on investigating chemical additions to food. The Joint Conference of Women's Groups on Public Welfare and the Standing Conference of Women's Organisa tions both support stricter Government legislation to control food chemicals.

This is an impressive body of official support for the principles behind the Bill, and the backing for it from members of the public is growing every day. But, when we consider that the Government's own National Food Survey revealed that one-third of our population is deficient in two major nutrients and that the position in this respect is worse than it was ten years ago, this concern is not surprising. The journal Medical Officer, voicing the anxiety of the medical profession, on the close connection between specific nutritional deficiencies and clinical disease, has said:
"In her choice of the family food, the housewife has the greatest single measure of control of the health of her family."
I agree, but, until food manufacturers are forced to disclose all the dyes, flavourings and additives in foods, the housewife has to shop in blinkers. She does not know, when she buys coloured foods—and almost all packaged and tinned foods are dyed now—whether the colour is one of the six which were condemned by the Food Standards' Committee; and it will almost certainly be one of the 30 which have not yet been proved to be safe although they are in common use. She does not know, when she buys a bottle of orange juice, which may be labelled "Made with pure fruit", that the minimum standards standard laid down by law for this product permits the actual juice to be only 5 per cent., with 95 per cent. water and artificial colouring, artificial flavouring and artificial sweetening added.

To take a recent case, when the weight of jam in jars was reduced from one pound to 12 ounces for a similar price, the housewife had no means of knowing whether the higher priced jam was of better quality made from fresh fruit in season and free from preservatives, as the manufacturers claimed, or the cheaper jam contained pulped fruit preserved with sulphur dioxide, because there was no requirement to label the jam accordingly.

We have been far too complacent and too indifferent about possible dangers from food additives in this country, and it is time that we checked the ever increasing flood. We lag behind the United States, which is more strict than we are, and still further behind Western Germany. West Germany has proved that it is practicable to impose a rigorous obligation on manufacturers to disclose to the public by strict and enforceable regulations what additives have been used and, contrary to what some food manufacturers in this country have suggested, the long chemical names, the real meaning of which is known only to the experts, have come to be recognised by German housewifes when they appear on the labels and they have known which to avoid buying.

As a result food in Germany has greatly improved in quality. Margarine in Germany, for example, is now completely free from chemical colourings, emulsifiers and additives of any kind and the enforcement of food regulations has been made more effective.

It is small comfort to learn, as I did a short time ago, that food containing unlabelled additives which cannot be sold in Germany because of their strict regulations is exported to be sold in this country because our regulations in this respect are so lax.

My Bill would insist that food manufacturers should label their products according to all the chemicals contained in them or used in their preparation. It would also contain provisions for labelling cosmetics as well as food, because of the possible health hazard of absorbing substances through the skin or, in the case of lipstick, by way of the mouth. It would, moreover, be in line with the Brambell Committee Report on factory farming, in that it would provide for the appropriate labelling of meat and meat products produced in this way. While it is right that we should be concerned about the animals' welfare and the economic implications to the farmer, there is also the health hazard to the consumer to be considered from meat raised with artificial feeds and under unnatural conditions. Appropriate labelling would allow the customer to choose or reject such meat at will.

I recognise that the Minister is very much concerned about this problem and is considering new regulations, but these may be a long time coming into operation and are unlikely to be so comprehensive and far-ranging as my Bill. I strongly suspect that there is a close link between the ever increasing expenditure on chemical fertilisers, pesticides and food additives and the ever increasing bill for National Health, which is now running at £1,200,000 million a year. If we put the truth on the label, we shall be making an important contribution to consumer choice and to the nation's health which is long overdue. I therefore ask the House to give me leave to bring in this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Joyce Butler, Mrs. Braddock, Sir Stephen McAdden, Mr. John Farr, Mr. John Rankin, and Mr. Jeremy Thorpe.