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Food Labelling Advisory Committee

Volume 173: debated on Thursday 7 June 1990

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

'.—(1) There shall be established a body to be called the Food Labelling Advisory Committee ("the Committee") to perform the functions assigned to the Committee by or under this section.

(2) The members of the Committee, of whom there shall be not less than eight, shall be appointed by the Minister after consultation with such persons and organisations as he considers appropriate.

(3) The Committee shall give to the Minister advice on matters relating to the implementation of this section or the exercise of any power conferred by it, or otherwise relating to food labelling, where the Committee consider it expedient, or they are requested by the Minister to do so.

(4) The Committee shall have a duty to identify labelling descriptions which are misleading and shall have a duty to propose to the Minister alternative descriptions.

(5) The functions of the Food Advisory Committee in respect of food labelling and compositional standards shall be transferred to the Committee from the first day this Act comes into force.'.— [Mr. Matthew Taylor.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

8.15 pm

With this, it will be convenient to consider the following amendments: No. 32, in clause 8, page 6, line 19 at end insert—

'(d) it is not reasonably safe, having regard to all the circumstances, including the manner in which, and the purposes for which, the food is being marketed, the composition of the food, the use of any mark in relation to food and any instructions or warnings which are given with respect to the keeping, use of or consumption of the food.'.
No. 33, in clause 17, page 14, line 28 at end insert—
'In making regulations under subsection (1) above, the Ministers shall take all necessary steps to ensure that milk collected from cows which have been subject to injection with bovine somatotrophin shall be labelled as such.'.

New clause 6 proposes a food labelling advisory committee as opposed to what happens at present, when labelling matters come within the remit of the much more general Food Advisory Committee. Hon. Members who served on the Committee will be aware that Liberal Democrats have taken a particular interest throughout in the issue of food labelling. The new clause is an attempt to put that issue back on the agenda today and to move forward from what we believe to be a weak position for a Government who, in other respects, have accepted the argument that the consumer should have elements of choice. That choice could come with accurate and proper labelling. Labelling should not only be accurate in scientific terms, but should be capable of being readily understood by consumers when they are making their purchases. The anomalies and the misleading labelling that exists at the moment—and which is allowed—demonstrates that the Government and the Food Advisory Committee have failed in the job of providing the consumer with that service.

We need a separate body specifically dedicated to labelling. As one example of the areas in which improved labelling would be appropriate, the amendments would allow the labelling of mechanically recovered meat. That would enable consumers to make a distinction between artificial and natural ingredients.

Throughout the Bill's passage, I have repeatedly used the example of yoghurts that are labelled "strawberry flavour" as opposed to those that are labelled "strawberry-flavoured". To most people in the shops, that does not seem a distinction of great relevance, but it distinguishes between artificial ingredients and natural ingredients, such as real strawberries in the product.

I refer also to the distinction between "battery eggs" and "farm fresh eggs". In fact, there is no distinction, but a consumer who does not want to buy eggs produced from battery hens will not be aware of that fact. Frankly, the egg producers would use the description "battery eggs" rather than "farm fresh eggs" if they thought that the consumer would not react badly to the term "battery eggs". Producers use the term "farm fresh eggs" precisely because of the images that that conjures up in consumers' minds. That image is wholly wrong but the description helps to sell the eggs.

We want to ensure that "Cape" produce bears the words "South Africa". To many consumers, "Cape" produce and South African produce are different kettles of fish. Hon. Members may or may not feel that people should buy goods from South Africa, but some consumers may not want to buy South African goods and it may not occur to them that South African produce is labelled "Cape".

We also want to replace the word "tenderised" when that refers to the fact that the animal has been injected with a vegetable enzyme. That is not what one thinks of when one sees a product labelled "tenderised". When a cookery book states, "Tenderise your meat", it is not envisaged that the housewife will get out a hypodermic needle and inject the meat. The cookery book means that the meat should be bashed with a hammer.

Those are all examples of the way in which the present labelling system fails to give consumers what they think they are getting. In this respect, information is power and ignorance is impotence. It is high time that the Government did something about it.

Amendment No. 32 has received the strong backing of the Consumers Association. It is designed to ensure that the Bill includes a general safety clause and to make it an offence to sell food that fails to comply with the food safety requirements. We believe that being legally accountable for the safety of the food that they sell will make suppliers more careful about what they buy and how they store and display it. Although the proposed safety requirements are a considerable improvement on the present legislation—I do not take that away from the Government—they still do not meet the standards of other consumer protection legislation. The draft EC product safety directive, for example, which covers food, contains a much more wide-ranging safety duty that takes account of the
"intended use, consumption, packaging, transport and storage of a product, according to normal circumstances".
That is precisely the intention of the amendments.

The Consumer Protection Act 1987 imposes a similar general duty of safety, and trading standards officers have used it successfully. It is difficult to see why Ministers argue that such a measure is unusable or inappropriate. Clearly, they believe that it is appropriate in other areas and, indeed, the EEC believes that it is appropriate in food safety. Such a measure is used successfully in other areas.

The catch-all that the amendment would provide will extend all the way along the food chain and cover any loopholes that may emerge in the future. That is particularly important in food safety where technology, as we have already said, is changing rapidly. The provision would ensure that any potential risk presented by the product is appropriately indicated to make the consumer aware of it and allow an individual assessment of its seriousness.

The Government have maintained that such a provision is not necessary. They argue that all eventualities are covered by other, more targeted provisions in the Bill. However, the Consumers Association has identified two examples of loopholes in the Bill as currently drafted. Those loopholes were highlighted during the debate on this issue in the House of Lords. One loophole involves microwave ovens. There has been recent speculation about how effectively microwave cooking kills listeria. Some manufacturers of the ovens have reacted by removing instructions on how to microwave a particular product to heat it up because of worries that listeria might not be entirely eliminated by following the instructions. However, manufacturers provided no warning about goods that people may have cooked by microwave for some years following the users' instructions. To consumers it was the same old product that they had bought many times and heated in the same way. No warning was provided that the product was unsuitable for microwaving. Consumers could be forgiven for expecting to be able to continue to reheat the product in the microwave. The inclusion of a general safety requirement, such as that in the amendments, would require manufacturers to label such products as unsuitable for microwaving.

There is a similar loophole with red kidney beans. We know that there is a problem if the product is not properly cooked and that it can cause quite severe stomach upsets. Indeed, the Government issued prompt advice to the food industry urging it to label products accordingly. However, there is no legal requirement on suppliers to co-operate.

When those examples of loopholes were debated in the House of Lords, the Minister maintained that the addition of a general safety duty was unnecessary. In my view, he failed to give adequate explanation of how the existing provisions would cover the specific problems that had been pointed out. For example, the Minister claimed that the food labelling regulations covered kidney beans. However, beans sold loose are not covered by the regulations and whether pre-packed beans are covered is arguable.

The Minister referred to the provisions of clause 8, which deem food unfit if it has been rendered injurious to health or contaminated. But neither of the examples that I have given would be covered by that. The Minister also referred to the labelling and presentation requirements in clause 15. It covers false or misleading descriptions of food, but neither problem would he covered by it.

The Bill represents the Government's acceptance of the need to take measures to provide the public with general safety. The Ministers argue that the Bill does that. It is clear that the Bill does not do so in all eventualities. A general safety clause would cover all eventualities. Other legislation includes such clauses and I see no realistic or good reason why Ministers should oppose it. I hope that they will take this opportunity to react accordingly.

Amendment No. 33 requires the labelling of milk from cows which have been treated with BST. It does not address the question whether that product should he sold at all. In many respects, the simplest solution would be not to sell it to the public but simply to destroy it. Presently only three sites are testing BST and only 71 cows are involved. If the Government do not wish to pursue that course, at least they should let the consumer know what they are buying, according to exactly the same principle on which the Minister argued in the case of irradiation. He maintained that there was no risk from irradiation but that consumers should be allowed to be aware of what they were buying in order to exercise an informed choice. It is well known that, from the National Farmers Union to the women's institutes, consumers demand that knowledge and the ability to exercise that choice. However, it seems that Ministers are not prepared to give them that choice. Why not? When testing is being carried out at only three sites using only 71 cows, why not collect the milk separately, bottle it separately and label it to see whether people want it or not? [Laughter.]

I notice Labour Members laughing. I bet my bottom dollar that there would be no buyers for such milk if it were so labelled. That may be why the Government do not want to do so. The thought crossed the mind of the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies). Perhaps it has crossed the Minister's mind too. We should at least test it. If the Minister thinks that people will want to buy such milk, if is easy enough to test.

The only argument against labelling milk from BST-treated cows is that BST is the same as the natural hormone in cows. People say that one simply adds to the level of hormone in the cow but that in other respects one cannot tell the injected hormone and the natural hormone apart. The problem with that is, first, that the Government argue that irradiation is safe but that customers must be informed that food is irradiated. That is a right principle and it should apply to BST, too. Secondly, the case that BST is identical to the natural hormone is not proven. On the contrary, the molecular structure is different. On that basis alone, there is reason for caution, quite apart from evidence from Monsanto trials that, for example, cows injected with BST show significant and unnatural increases in the size of the internal organs, especially the heart and the kidneys, that pregnancy rates in BST-treated cows are almost half that in control cows and that the hormone content of BST milk is 26 times higher than that of normal milk. Monsanto's own trials revealed those details. They do not mean that there is necessarily a danger or a risk, but, on the basis of everything that Ministers have said about other matters from BSE to irradiation, surely the consumer should be protected against that risk, particularly while trials are taking place.

The trials happen to be taking place in the west country so I have a particularly strong interest in the matter. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to act to protect and inform the consumer by making labelling a requirement.

I say to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) and to the House that instinctively the Labour party is opposed to BST. We have made that clear. Whether this is the right vehicle to express our opposition to it is another matter. The hon. Gentleman would not expect us to go that far.

As this is the only occasion tonight on which I shall seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I take this opportunity—[Interruption.] I am glad that that has given pleasure to the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory). I am sorry to say that it seems to have given him mere pleasure than his speech gave me. I say that in a spirit of generosity because recently I visited his constituency. I take this opportunity to apologise for not having told him.

I was a member of what was a pleasant Standing Committee because I am a member of the health team. I found myself from time to time opposite the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman). I am sure that we all wish him well with his new portfolio. I enjoyed working with him on the Committee dealing with this Bill as well as on the Committee dealing with the National Health Service and Community Care Bill. In that spirit we extend a welcome to the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Dorrell).

I hope that the hon. Member for Truro will not be too disappointed when I say that, having listened to his speech for the second time, and although I appreciate that there is much to be said for the principles that he expounded, we cannot agree with the details. The principles are well intentioned, but although we support the main objectives of the new clause we have reservations about the details.

Food labelling is an essential part of the safety process and consumers have a right to expect labelling to be clear, accurate and informative. To be fair to food suppliers, such labelling is already provided; there are technical difficulties that the Committee recognised, but I shall not detain the House with them tonight as they are already on record.

8.30 pm

An area of particular concern involves new products and ingredients whose names are less familiar to consumers. The E numbers are used as part of a common EC nomenclature, but they are strange to many consumers. More information on that specific matter would be helpful to shoppers.

The new clause lacks reality because it proposes a specialist food labelling advisory committee. To achieve that would diminish the functions of the Food Advisory Committee, which already does useful work on labelling and compositional standards. We respect the work of the FAC and we do not want its role diminished, but that would follow the acceptance of the new clause.

I am glad to note that the Minister agrees. I detect that my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) is a bit worried, but his earlier intervention gave me far more pleasure than any of the speeches I heard from Tory Members in Committee. I hope that we hear a great deal more from my hon. Friend.

It is true that consumers should be more strongly represented on the FAC, but things are changing and I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield about that.

Doubtless when responding the Minister will say that the Government consider that the labelling of food is an EC affair and, as such, much of the decision-making about labelling occurs in Brussels. We are not unaware of the requirement for and benefits of common standards for labels, especially with 1992 in mind. Nevertheless, there must be a large consumer input into the regulations and directives from the EC.

The Government must test any proposals for labelling before those who speak for consumers test them, although I accept that the FAC has the expertise. The new consumer working party established belatedly by MAFF means that the shoppers' view will be known before the Council of Ministers decides on such matters.

For the present we prefer to use that which exists rather than to create another body with a limited function.

I shall deal first with amendment No. 32, which I believe is unnecessary and unworkable.

The House accepts that it is vital to ensure that we will always be able to prohibit the sale of unsafe food. I believe that that is already achieved by the three-part food safety requirement set out in clause 8(2). That requirement takes into account all the factors that have a direct effect on the safety of the final food. It makes little sense to say that food fails to comply with food safety requirements if it is not "reasonably safe". That term is extremely subjective and, even without it, it would be difficult to evaluate whether food was safe. Food that is safe to eat now may be harmful if eaten later. People are also different and food that does no harm to one can be extremely dangerous to another.

I believe that we have got the balance right on our food safety requirements. However, should there be some unforeseen turn of events that means that we need additional measures, we have the powers under clause 17 to make specific regulations to deal with the matters precisely mentioned by the amendment. We can regulate on the composition of food and on labelling and require warnings to be given to consumers. We have the legislative protection to hand if it is needed. The Bill contains broad and flexible powers based on what is good in existing legislation. I would not want the House to accept the amendment.

It is a pleasure for me to meet the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) at the Dispatch Box. He showed his customary kindness and good humour. On this occasion he displayed his excellent wisdom by pointing out that, even if there is merit in amendment No. 33, the Bill is not the vehicle for it. The same goes for some of the other rag-bag matters that the hon. Member for Truro would like to be subject to labels. We dealt with those issues exhaustively in Committee. If it is meritorious to start labelling South African produce, no doubt we shall get a demand from some Opposition Members to start labelling Nicaraguan produce now that that country is no longer controlled by a nasty left-wing regime. That country is now probably persona non grata. Were we to seek to take such action, we should do so after first taking the advice of the Food Advisory Committee. We could make such changes under the labelling regulations and the powers set out in clause 16. I repeat, however, that the Bill is not the vehicle for the personal issues raised by the hon. Member for Truro that he wants to be subject to labelling.

The hon. Member for Monklands, West was right to cast doubt on the new clause and right to support the FAC. It already advises Ministers on matters relating to the composition, labelling and advertising of food and on additives, contaminants and other substances that might be present. It is unnecessary and undesirable to set up a similar but separate body. The FAC has a chairman and 14 members appointed for their personal expertise—they do not represent particular interests. Five of them are from the food manufacturing or retail industry, five have consumer or enforcement expertise and five are from the academic world. The committee reviews and prepares reports on all matters within its terms of reference and it makes recommendations for legislation where necessary. I set great store by the FAC and I hope that it will continue in its work.

I have told the House on many occasions that we have given the FAC a major task to perform in the next few months as it will advise on all aspects of labelling, identify misleading labelling descriptions and propose alternatives. Many of the issues mentioned by the hon. Member for Truro are currently under review by the FAC. The comprehensive review of food labelling undertaken by that committee will be first class. It will also take into account changing EC obligations. The hon. Member for Monklands, West was right to point out that we are no longer totally our own master in that respect. We must bear in mind EC decisions.

The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Truro are unnecessary and unworkable and his new clause undermines the excellent work undertaken by the FAC. We see no need to set up a separate body to deal particularly with food labelling. In common with the hon. Member for Monklands, West, I hope that the House will not want the new clause to be added to the Bill.

Question put and negatived.