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Food Labelling

Volume 448: debated on Tuesday 11 July 2006

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]

I am particularly delighted that you, Mr. Speaker, are in the Chair to accept my thanks for giving me the opportunity to address the House briefly this evening.

My concern on the matter of front-of-pack food labelling goes back a number of years, but arises principally from the obesity report of the Health Committee, of which I am a member, published in the last Parliament in 2003-04. The background covered a number of different issues, of which food labelling was just one small part. However, the position in the UK today is such that obesity and diet-related ill health are major problems to individuals, communities and the national health service.

British business, British society and the British economy suffer as a consequence. Nutrition and health claims made on food packaging can often be confusing and sometimes border on being downright misleading. For example, a low-fat claim may legitimately ignore the fact that the same produce is high in salt. Supermarkets have a huge influence on how we shop, cook and eat. National Consumer Council research has shown that supermarkets need to do more to help customers to eat more healthily and the most vulnerable in society often have the poorest diets, which is a major factor in health inequality.

The Health Committee report of 2003-04 was, I think, our magnum opus. The Committee did much valuable work during the previous Parliament—issues of modesty notwithstanding—and I believe that our report on obesity was the greatest thing that we did.

I am delighted to see that the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) is in his place, not only because he can give testimony to what I have said, but because he is a strong supporter of the points that our Committee raised about front-of-pack labelling. I also pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman as the author of early-day motion 2055 on this very subject. A shrewd reading of the Order Paper will demonstrate that he has a slot next Tuesday under the ten-minute rule procedure. Currently, there is a reference to amending statutory orders legislation, but I suspect that it may change between now and next Tuesday. I should also add that I have agreed through all the proper channels that he may speak for a few minutes. I will sit down in time for him to have a couple of minutes before my hon. Friend the Minister replies.

I want to draw the House’s attention to what the Select Committee recorded in our report on the issue. With your forbearance, Mr. Speaker, I shall quote a couple of paragraphs from the report. It said:

“Nutritional labelling is intended to help consumers make sound nutritional decisions when buying food, but the current state of much labelling seems to be having, if anything, the opposite effect. We have repeatedly heard the argument, both from the food industry and from the Government, that there are no such things as good or bad foods, only good or bad diets. However, both the food industry and the Government have embraced the concept of labelling certain foods as ‘healthy’ with great enthusiasm, inviting the obvious conclusion that other foods must be, by definition, less healthy.”

Our recommendation was:

“The Government must accept the clear fact that some foods, which are extremely energy-dense, should only be eaten in moderation by most people, and we therefore recommend that it introduces legislation to effect a ‘traffic light’ system for labelling foods, either ‘red—high’, ‘amber—medium’ or ‘green—low’ according to criteria devised by the Food Standards Agency, which should be based on energy density. This would apply to all foods. Not only will such a system make it far easier for consumers to make choices, but it would also be an incentive for the food industry to re-examine the content of their foods to see if, for example, they could…move their product from the ‘high’ category into the ‘medium’ category.”

We regarded such a system as a necessity and as a discipline on both the food producers and the food retailers.

In fact, the Government, to give them credit, said in their response to our report that they had

“started work with the FSA to develop criteria that take account of fat, salt and sugar levels to indicate the contribution that the food makes to a healthy balanced diet.”

They continued:

“We will work with the food industry to develop the signposting approach further on the completion of FSA consumer research. Our goal is, by early 2006, for there to be: a clear straightforward coding system…that is in common use…and that busy people can understand at a glance which foods can make a positive contribution to a healthy diet, and which are recommended to be eaten only in moderation or sparingly.”

The Government’s response was entirely reasonable. Sadly, I do not know how Government calendars work—I have not been privy to them for some time—but I do not think that we are in early 2006 anymore. So while progress has been made, to coin a phrase, there is much done, but much more to do.

The Food Standards Agency consulted and decided in March this year that the model of food labelling that it wanted to impress on others was for clear MTL—multiple traffic light—signage on the front of packs and the GDAs, the guideline daily amounts, on the back of packs. I fully support its decision. It has received strong support from many in the industry: Sainsbury’s, the Co-op, Waitrose and Asda have all willingly accepted such a system, although there is a minor issue about Sainbury’s definition of fat, but at least it has gone most of the way to try to achieve that aim. Marks and Spencer has said that it is willing to consider that system as well and is in consultation with the Food Standards Agency. The agency’s position has also received strong support from the National Consumer Council, Which?, the Consumers Association, the British Heart Foundation and very many health charities that are concerned with the issue.

The issue on front-of-pack labelling is essentially that of the traffic light system versus guideline daily amounts. There has been stiff resistance to the traffic light system, however, and it comes principally not from food retailers, but from food processors. In particular, I mention Nestles—or Nestlé as it prefers to be called—PepsiCo, Kraft, Kellogg’s and Danone. The Food and Drink Federation appear to be opposed, but as the people who pay the federation’s salaries are Nestlé, PepsiCo, Kraft, Kellogg’s and Danone, that is hardly a surprise or a revelation.

There has been heavy lobbying of all Members—I am sure that I cannot be alone in that—by spokespeople from such organisations, who have tried to tell us why the traffic light system is completely wrong. I met someone from Kraft Foods to discuss why the guideline daily amount was the way to make progress on this issue. They gave me a presentation, which included a suggestion of what their packs would look like. I have that with me, and although I know that I cannot use audio-visual aids in the Chamber, when I look at it I really do not have a clue what any of it means. For example, a packet of cornflakes tells me that it has 17 per cent. of my saturate diet for that day. So what do I do? Do I carry an organiser around with me so that I can work out how many saturates I had in my bowl of Kellogg’s? Do I then ask myself how many saturates are in the sandwich that I have at lunchtime? This is what we in the Committee generally found about the state of labelling, before the initiative: it is fact without information, and it confers nothing to the consumer.

The chap who came to see me subsequently sent me a letter, in which he said that he hoped that our meeting had clarified matters. Well, I have to say to the corporate director of Kraft Foods that it had exactly the opposite effect, and it has made me more animated on the subject than I have previously been.

After the hon. Member for Southend, West had the temerity to table his early-day motion on this issue, which I signed, there was a positive plethora of letters from Kraft, Kellogg’s, Nestlé and PepsiCo—and, amazingly enough, Danone managed to get in on the act. The first letter on the early-day motion arrived on 10 May, and it was signed by somebody on behalf of their public affairs company. By 26 May, they had decided that matters had got so bad that they sent the same letter saying, in effect. “We can’t possibly have this system.” But they got senior executives in all five of the companies involved to sign it as well.

They did not think that I would keep the original letter, and therefore could compare them. The letter contains the following astonishing revelation:

“The arrival of GDA labels in stores comes as new research reveals that the majority of UK shoppers (97 per cent.) are in favour of food manufacturers providing consistent and clearer food labelling”.

Well, what did the other 3 per cent. want? Did they want more obscure and opaque labelling? Did they want no labelling at all? This is absolutely ridiculous. We have since discovered that consumers find the GDA labelling system informative to a limited degree, but not enlightening. That is the subject that I wish to address.

The Food and Drink Federation—the front organisation for many of the companies that I have mentioned—stated in a letter to me:

“We believe that the MTL system, with its “stop/go” instructions for consumers, takes the dumbed-down route and delivers virtually no useful information to help people balance their diet. It could also seriously mislead consumers as they fail to take account of portion sizes and frequency of consumption.”

It then goes on to give a very detailed and technical description of why traffic lights cannot work—what they will not tell people, and what they will tell people. All I thought when I read it was that it proves the old maxim that the best place to hide a tree is in a forest; the idea is to give people so much information that it becomes functionally useless.

Let us look at where we are now. Today, I received a message from Sainsbury’s, which has done a lot of work on this issue. It has launched its “wheel of health” on the front of its packs. It states:

“We launched the Wheel of Health in January 2005. It is compatible with the FSA’s recommendations. It is honest and transparent, we don’t duck the issue of putting Red on products.”

The letter goes on to detail a number of further changes: Sainsbury’s is also providing GDA for some 2,100 lines, and it will extend that to all products, beyond the categories specified by the Food Standards Agency.

Let us see what has actually happened for consumers. In 2005, 94 per cent. of Sainsbury’s customers found the “wheel of health” symbol easy to understand. That highlights the point that the Committee was trying to make. Also, 77 per cent. found that colour-coding was useful, and

“76 per cent. said that it would influence their purchasing decisions”.

Let us see if that is the case. Sainsbury’s cite two products. Sales of its all-butter croissants are down because their “wheel of health” is mainly red, whereas sales of its healthier standard loaf—

“with 15 per cent. less salt, and all-green”—

have gone up. So that will affect customers’ behaviour; this is the sort of information that they need.

In conclusion, I received a report today from Which?, the largest European consumer organisation, with 700,000 members. On reading it, I felt like chucking away all the notes that I had written in the past few days and simply reading it out this evening instead, because its conclusion is so damning. Which? tested the Tesco guideline daily amount system, the FSA’s multiple traffic light system, the scheme used by some food and drink manufacturers—Pepsi, Danone and so on—and a hybrid system. Which? said:

“The research confirms that the Food Standards Agency traffic light labelling scheme is the most useful for all consumers, particularly those on a low income.”

The key findings were as follows:

“Using their red, amber and green traffic light system to compare levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt, 97 per cent. of respondents were able to correctly identify and compare recommended levels of nutrients…The Tesco scheme proved to be the weakest system for understanding, with just 37 per cent. of consumers being able to correctly interpret the meaning of the Tesco colour coding…When respondents were asked to compare different suggested labelling schemes, nine in ten…said they found the FSA system very or fairly easy to use and over nine in ten (93 per cent.) said they could understand it quickly or at a glance.”

That is exactly what the Health Committee recommended to the Government, and we believe that that is what they accepted. I ask my hon. Friend to ensure that she brings to bear all the pressure that she can on these recalcitrants.

Tesco does not back many losers. We should advise it not to back losers on this occasion, and to do what consumers want and need.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Jim Dowd) not only on securing this debate but on the manner in which he introduced it. The Minister probably also welcomes the debate, because it strengthens her hand in dealing with this issue. I know that she and her ministerial colleagues take the Health Committee’s work very seriously and have particular regard for its report on obesity. During the obesity inquiry, it was very clear that the food and drinks industry was in denial on this subject: it wanted to talk about fitness, rather than the amount of fat, sugar and salt that we eat. The Health Committee was having none of that, hence this very simple labelling suggestion.

I entirely support the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. A clear system has been suggested, and the prevarication of these powerful organisations is an absolute disgrace. I simply say to the Minister that I hope, as the hon. Gentleman hopes, that she can charm the industry into adopting this simple labelling system. But if she fails—I hope that she does not—I hope that the Government will adopt the ten-minute Bill on single food labelling that I am seeking leave to introduce on Tuesday.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Jim Dowd) for securing this debate, which comes at an important moment, as this issue breaks into the public consciousness. There is a certain rivalry and competition between retailers and food manufacturers in respect of labelling, which is healthy. I also welcome the presence this evening of the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), and thank him and my hon. Friend for their contributions to the Health Committee’s report on obesity. That report provided not only the Department of Health but all of us in government who are working to tackle the issues associated with obesity with clarity in terms of the way ahead, and with the purpose and support to enable us to move forward.

I have spent considerable time during the past year having joint meetings with the Food Standards Agency and different industry stakeholders on this issue. At some of those meetings, I have had various products put on the desk in front of me and have been told that the FSA’s proposed model will be a nightmare for all concerned in the industry. Interestingly, a year ago, the argument was whether to have front-of-pack labelling to define products that are high in salt, fat and sugar.

Things are different now. Although there is still some progress to be made in the proper labelling of packs, there has been a shift in understanding of the scientific reasons for the need to tackle obesity and of the health needs of the community, partly because of the public pressure that has been exerted. That pressure has been enhanced by Members of Parliament who have raised the issue on a number of occasions, stressing its importance as a piece of the jigsaw of work that we are having to undertake. Of course, that work includes recommending physical activity, but it also includes giving consumers informed choice, which is what they desperately need.

Part of that informed choice is the ability to differentiate between products. When I embarked on my journey a year ago, I was concerned mainly about the products that present the hardest choices. How can one shepherd’s pie or one lasagne be differentiated from another? Many people buy processed products because they lead busy lives, but some may do so because they have no guidance to help them determine whether one shepherd’s pie is healthier than the one next to it in the cabinet. Such complex products were an important issue for me, but so were cereals, which are a meal in themselves at breakfast time.

It is interesting to note the way in which things have moved on as a result of the labelling debate. It must be said that much of that has been initiated by the industry, which now seems to want to put front-of-pack labels on everything from soft drinks to products which, in our view, speak for themselves and do not really need the labels. I am not saying that I am against that, but we were examining what we considered the most difficult area. When we were designing the model with which the agency helped us and which the Government support, we wanted to end up with something that was sound.

The model had to be sound on a number of fronts. For one thing, it had to provide clear guidance that people understood. During the deliberations of the past year, it has concerned me that many people still find guideline daily amounts difficult to understand. When asked whether they would support action on GDAs, most people say that they would. When asked whether they understand GDA information on a pack, their answers are slightly different. I understand that some of the organisations which, according to my hon. Friend, do not support the FSA model are embarking on a huge campaign to educate the public on GDAs. I am sure that there will be a great deal of money behind that campaign, but perhaps what is most important is to devise a simpler way for people to understand what they are buying and subsequently consuming.

As a shopper myself, I know how much time I have when going around the stores. I want to see at a glance what is in the various products when I am shopping for my family. It should be borne in mind that there are different GDAs for men and women and for children. It is a complex issue, and some people say that they are not prepared to live or die for it. At the end of our deliberations, the agency said, “If you want GDAs that is okay, but what is really important is clear information about products that contain high levels of salts, sugars and fats. How can we make it easier for people to differentiate between products? How can we make it easier for them to shop?”

As was pointed out by my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Southend, West, we need to find a way of providing consumers with the best possible information. It is not my job to tell people what to eat, but I think it is part of my responsibility—and the Government’s responsibility—to gear information in a way that allows people to make choices for themselves. If we are ever to conquer the problem of rising levels of obesity, families—parents, but also children—must understand labelling. They must be in the driving seat: they must choose health for themselves. As was pointed out in the White Paper “Choosing Health” , we can play our part in Government by taking action on school meals and working with industry to reformulate and provide better choice between foods, but ultimately we will win only when people make the choice for themselves.

My hon. Friend mentioned significant data relating to the new Sainsbury’s labelling, and gave examples. I would add that it is helping people to make informed choices between brands of soup, for instance. That does mean that sales of some products are falling, but product sales of healthier choices are going up. It is interesting that just providing information causes behaviour change. We get a lot of information about our diet and various foods every day, but it is not always clear how much that drives people to make changes in their lives.

We have agreed with all parties to the debate on the need to commission independent research to evaluate some of the systems that are being promoted and used, to discover which ones change behaviour the most. I hope that we can do that in a spirit of co-operation and that all sides will be prepared to accept the results of that independent research if it proves its worth.

The evidence is clear that consumers are overwhelmingly in favour of front of pack signpost labelling and they clearly prefer the colour-coded labels, which was borne out by the Which? report published this week. The issue is not good foods or bad foods, but people making informed choices. I am not saying that people should never eat chocolate or cakes—not least because that would make me a bit of a hypocrite—but it is a question of balance. The red, amber and green labels are not about stopping people eating certain foods, but about helping them to achieve that balance. The colours indicate high, medium and low levels of nutrients, not good or bad foods. That is not the language that we are using.

In every test, formats that did not have a colour element performed significantly worse than those that did. Consumers also wanted some numerical information, but they were less receptive to percentages. Some people find percentages difficult. Some people have English as a second language, and there are various other barriers to understanding information, one of which is time. What information are we evaluating when we stand in front of the freezer cabinet and choose what to put in our trolley or basket for that week? Nine out of 10 consumers said that they found a colour-coded approach very or fairly easy to use and that they could understand it quickly or at a glance. As I have said, consumers also told us that they particularly wanted to see signposts on foods whose nutritional quality is hard to judge, such as ready meals, sandwiches, pizzas, burgers and breakfast cereals.

Evidence is continuing to emerge as new labelling appears on our shelves and consumers get to use it in their shopping experience. That evidence has informed the agency’s work. The FSA carried out many tests and evaluated different models before it reached the recommended approach, which the Government have endorsed. The core principles that the FSA has applied are pragmatic and progressive. They will provide the consumer with consistency and give business the opportunity to tailor their labelling to fit their customers’ needs. Sainsbury’s has gone for the wheel of health and others have chosen an oblong label on the front of packets.

As I have said, the approach is not about demonising foods, but helping busy people to assess quickly the nutritional quality of complex foods so that they can make their choices easily. On GDAs, our approach is flexible enough to allow manufacturers and retailers to provide additional information such as calorie content or GDAs if they wish. However, GDAs are not simple to use and the manufacturers will have to produce better arguments if they wish to pursue them instead of colour coding.

I began work on this matter a year ago, and I welcome the progress that has been made. I hope that the Select Committee involvement of my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Southend, West has helped to move things along, but I am delighted that more than one third of the retail sector is committed to schemes that meet the FSA model. Sainsbury and Waitrose are so committed, and Asda and the Co-op will be soon.

Has my hon. Friend noticed that, with one or two significant exceptions, the retailers are most receptive towards the scheme? The food producers are trying to hide behind the retailers, who are closest to the customers.

That is absolutely true. The retailers have been helping us a lot, in other areas of public health, with their understanding of consumer behaviour. Moreover, it is interesting to see how some of the brand products have ended up competing against retailers’ products. Finding out what impact that has, in terms of the products that are put in trolleys and taken out of the supermarket, would make an interesting piece of research.

We need to encourage more retailers to take up the FSA model. We have committed ourselves to the independent research that I mentioned earlier, which I think will keep us engaged with the industry. In addition, we know that Europe is looking closely at what is happening in the UK. The EU has responsibility for legislation on food labelling across Europe, and I know that some of the companies mentioned by my hon. Friend are already making their case there. They want to find out what works, because that is the most important factor in this matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o’clock.