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Food Labelling

Volume 481: debated on Wednesday 29 October 2008

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make further provision for relevant information about food, including information about the country of origin, contents and standards of production of that food, to be made available to consumers by labelling, marking or in other ways; and for connected purposes.

The first occasion on which I sought the leave of the House to introduce a Bill to require clearer labelling of food was in 2004. I was certainly not the first Member to seek to introduce such legislation, and many Members throughout the House have supported the proposition that consumers should have clearer, more accurate and more honest information about the food that they buy than is currently required.

Since 2004, interest in local sourcing and local production of food has grown significantly. The issue of food miles has become more prominent in political discussion, and the importance to consumers of higher animal welfare standards has continued to increase. Only this morning, on the BBC Radio 4 programme “Farming Today”, an egg farmer spoke of his continued shift towards free-range hens for egg production, because that was what consumers wanted.

Attempts to improve the law continue. My own Bill has support from Members on all sides of the House, and I note that next week my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) will seek leave to introduce her own food labelling Bill, which I understand focuses mainly on nutrition and health issues. It will complement my Bill, which, as well as providing information about the content and production standards of food, will ensure that information about the country of origin of different foods is included in labelling.

Consumers should have the information that they need to make informed decisions about the food that they buy. A wide range of issues may rightly concern them when they make their purchasing decisions, including the nutritional and calorific value of food, the salt or fat content, the animal welfare standards according to which food is produced, and the country of origin. Any food labelling regime must seek to address those various concerns. It is important that all food producers adhere to the same high standards applied to food labelling, and the best way in which to achieve that is through a statutory framework.

The Food Labelling Regulations 1996 require food to be marked or labelled with information such as the name of the food, a list of its ingredients, the amount of an ingredient that is named or associated with the food, an appropriate durability indication, any special storage conditions, the name of the business and manufacturer, and in certain cases, the place of origin, as well as the process used in the manufacture and instructions for use.

In July this year, the Food Standards Agency updated its guidance on the use of marketing terms such as “fresh”, “pure” and “natural”, but there was nothing new on country of origin labelling, although the guidance continues to draw attention to regulation 5 of the 1996 regulations, which requires

“particulars of the place of origin or provenance of the food if failure to give such particulars might mislead a purchaser to a material degree as to the true origin or provenance of the food.”

Currently, country of origin labelling must comply with the Food Safety Act 1990 and the Trade Descriptions Act 1968, which make it an offence to label any food in a way that falsely describes it or which is likely to mislead as to its nature, substance or quality. However, neither Act defines how much British involvement is required before produce can be sold as British.

The specific expression “country of origin” is not defined in the 1996 regulations or in the food labelling directive 2000/13/EC. However, the approach taken in section 36 of the Trade Descriptions Act is that, for the purposes of the Act, goods are deemed to have been manufactured or produced in the country where they last underwent a treatment or process resulting in a substantial change. This is likely to include the manufacture of bacon or ham, for example. However, at present, consumers are being misled. Pork that has been imported from Denmark and then packaged in the UK may be called “Product of Britain”.

The problem can apply to other food products, too. Butter churned in England using milk imported from Belgium should not, supposedly, be labelled “English”, but it can lawfully be described as “produced in England from milk”. Norwegian salmon that has been smoked in Scotland should not, supposedly, be called “Scottish”, but it can lawfully be described as “salmon smoked in Scotland”. Slaughtering in this country would count, so that “British lamb” could mean imported lambs slaughtered and packaged in the UK. Products can be labelled as “produced in the UK” when all the ingredients come from outside the country. There is concern that some companies have taken advantage of these slack regulations, and label their products with the Union Jack accompanied by slogans such as “traditional British food” or “great British recipe” when, in fact, they are not produced in this country.

There is, obviously, a duty on consumers to read the labels in the first place, but there is also a need to prevent labels, presentation and other information from being misleading about the product. Country of origin is an area where there is particular potential for consumers to be misled. Clear mandatory country of origin labelling would significantly reduce the risk that consumers making a food purchasing decision would be misled, or in practice be unable to use their consumer power to support domestic producers if that is what they wish to do.

Country of origin labelling already exists for beef, and I believe it should be extended to cover other fresh meat. There are more complex issues in the labelling of processed meat and dairy products, where the sourcing frequently varies. I acknowledge that these issues would need to be considered carefully in Committee. Modern labelling technology has improved considerably in recent years, and I am persuaded that it would now be easier for processed food manufacturers to comply with country of origin labelling requirements than it was in the past, but I acknowledge that processed food does present greater difficulties in labelling than fresh meat.

This morning, I was pleased to attend the David Black memorial award breakfast in the House of Lords, celebrating the achievements of the British pig industry despite very difficult conditions in recent years, and particularly to honour the contribution to the industry of this year’s award winner, Ian Campbell MBE. I was also pleased to receive a copy of a film entitled “An Inconvenient Trough”, made by a group of pig farmers and launched this morning. It is an excellent follow-up to the campaign “Stand by Your Ham”, which last summer featured Winnie the pig in a stall opposite Downing street, where she drew thousands of visitors, including many Members. This film draws attention to the conditions facing pig farmers, notably that 70 per cent. of the imports of pork and pork products into the United Kingdom are produced to animal welfare standards that would be unlawful in this country. It is in that context that we must look at country of origin labelling. I must emphasise that this is not in order to prevent consumers buying products from where they wish, but, rather, to ensure that they are making informed decisions and that they cannot be misled.

Government can also do more. The pig industry has produced its own quality standard mark for pork, and for other pork products such as bacon and ham. The mark shows that the meat has been produced to higher animal welfare standards, yet 76 per cent. of bacon and 39 per cent. of pork served in Whitehall Departments is produced to the lower EU standards, not the higher standards of the quality standard mark.

I make no secret of the fact that I wish all consumers would buy British meat all the time, but achieving that is a matter for consumers and is not the purpose of my Bill. I just want to see a fair deal for British farmers. I want to ensure that they are given the chance to compete fairly with overseas products, that the lower animal welfare standards often applied to imported production are clearly marked for consumers as well as the higher standards of domestic production, that farmers are able to engage the consumer in supporting the high standards of food safety, animal welfare and environmental care that lie at the heart of British farming and that they cannot be undermined by misleading labelling of competing products. A vital part of facilitating that shift in priorities will be to ensure that this country has far more rigorous and transparent food labelling. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Richard Bacon, Keith Hill, Mr. Keith Simpson, Andrew Mackinlay, Mr. David Heath, Mr. Stephen O’Brien, Mr. David Ruffley, Angus Robertson, Mr. Roger Williams and Sir Nicholas Winterton.

Food Labelling

Mr. Richard Bacon accordingly presented a Bill to make further provision for relevant information about food, including information about the country of origin, contents and standards of production of that food, to be made available to consumers by labelling, marking or in other ways; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 7 November, and to be printed [Bill 157].