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Food Labelling

Volume 75: debated on Tuesday 12 March 1985

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asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he has yet completed consideration of those recommendations in the Report of the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy on Diet and Cardiovascular Disease which are of concern to his Department; and if he will make a statement.

I have examined carefully the recommendations in the COMA report on diet and cardiovascular disease in consultation with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Social Services, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Since the report was published in July last year officials have also held preliminary discussions with representatives of food and drink manufacturers, distributors, retailers, consumers, and local authority organisations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services has invited the British Nutrition Foundation and the Health Education Council to ask their joint advisory committee on nutritional education to produce practical guidance for families based on the recommendations. We are therefore working towards implementing all the COMA recommendations to the Government. Much remains to be done but I can now announce the Government's general proposals on those recommendations which affect agricultural and food policy.COMA made important proposals for the labelling of the fat content of food. The Government intend to introduce statutory requirements concerning foods which make a significant contribution to the fat intake in the diet. Such foods should be labelled with their total fat content and their saturated fatty acid content. In the important cases of butter, margarine, table spreads, cooking fat and other edible oils, the saturated fatty acid content would be shown with the trans fatty acid content as a combined figure. The new requirements would cover not only packaged food but also foods sold loose, although the detailed labelling requirements would need to be varied to allow for the particular circumstances of different parts of the food industry and there will therefore be further consultations on some of the more difficult problems. Labelling of individual portions is clearly not practical in the case of catering establishments. However, the Government will discuss with the trades covering all such cases how to ensure in a practical way that they can play their part in providing consumers with information about the fat in the foods they serve. Foods which do not make a significant contribution to fat intake would be outside the new labelling requirements: they include such items as most fruit and vegetables, cereals and bread and flour.Representatives of the food industry have asked the Government to consider full nutrition labelling of all foods covering such things as energy, protein, and carbohydrate content as well as fat content. We do not propose to introduce compulsory full nutrition labelling but will prepare draft guidelines and will circulate them for comment to all the interests concerned. While full nutrition labelling would therefore remain voluntary, the Government will consider whether to prescribe a standard format by regulation, in order to avoid the confusion among consumers that differing formats might cause.The Government, the Consumers Association and the National Consumers Council are collaborating in a survey of consumer understanding of, and requirements for, fat content and nutrition labelling. The results are expected in May and will be taken into account in reaching the Government's final conclusion.COMA recommended that all alcoholic drinks should be labelled with the percentage of alcohol by volume. Similar proposals for Community regulations have been made by the European Commission and are to be debated by Parliament. The Government will take careful account of the views of Parliament and of the Commission's proposals before reaching a decision, but believe that regulations should be introduced in line with the COMA recommendations.COMA recommended that alternative preparations of food should be made available with lower saturated fat or lower salt contents. The Government will continue their discussions with the industry on this matter and note that there are already a number of alternative lower fat products on the market, such as low fat dairy products, table spreads and sausages.I have considered the recommendation for the production of leaner carcases of cattle, sheep and pigs. So far as cattle and sheep are concerned, I have concluced that it would be appropriate to adjust the certification standards applying under the respective variable premium schemes so as to exclude from eligibility the fatter animals (that is in the case of cattle those falling into fat class 5; and those covered by the fatter end of the MLC's fat class 4 in the case of sheep). I believe that, given reasonable notice, beef and sheep producers should be able to make the necessary adjustments to their husbandry and breeding practices. I accordingly have it in mind that these changes should be effective from the beginning of the 1986 marketing years. Meanwhile, my officials and MLC staff will be collaborating in a suitable programme of advisory events. There are no corresponding arrangements for prigs, but the trend there continues to be towards the production of leaner animals.I have carefully noted the recommemdations to consider ways of removing from the common agricultural policy those elements which might dicourage dietary change. The Government believe that production should be geared to consumer demand as expressed in the market place. In general the commodity regimes of the CAP do not discourage individuals from implementing the COMA dietary recommendations if they wish to do so. The Government will however in future take this recommendation fully into account, with other relevant considerations, in determining the United Kingdom position in negotiations on the CAP. The European Commission has proposed that the general consumer butter subsidy should lapse at the end of 1984–85 and the Government intend to accept this provided other relevant decisions are satisfactory.In carrying out their proposals the Government must bear in mind their responsibilities as a member of the EEC, where food labelling law is already harmonised. We will therefore remain in close touch with the European Commission.The Government recognise that some parts of the industry face genuine practical problems which will have to be resolved in further discussion; but I am confident that all those involved will continue to adopt the same constructive and co-operative approach as they had done hitherto. I intend to issue proposals for regulations later this year.In the meantime, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services expects that the guidance being sought from the joint advisory committee on nutritional education will be published in the early summer. In addition, the catering guidance provided by his Department for use by hospitals, local authorities and many private catering establishments is being revised to reflect COMA advice. Finally, work is going forward to assess the possibilities for better and more cost effective ways of identifying people at high risk of coronary heart disease, including research into the means of facilitating measurement of blood lipids.