I beg to move,
That this House believes that British consumers are entitled to know exactly how and where the food they are eating is produced and that clear and unambiguous labelling stating the country of origin of the major ingredients is required to achieve this; further believes that this will level the playing field for British farmers and enable British consumers to show their preference for home-grown food which is produced to high standards of animal welfare, health and safety and environmental protection; notes that the rate of self-sufficiency in the food which Britain can produce itself has dropped substantially since 1997; further believes that voluntary labelling by food retailers has failed to deliver the transparency that consumers require; and calls on the Government to introduce a mandatory country of origin labelling scheme for meat and meat products without further delay.
We have called the debate today because of a simple principle: people have a right to know where their food comes from. Currently, meat that is processed here, but imported, such as bacon, sausages and meat in ready meals, can be labelled “British”. We believe that that is a dishonest system, which misleads consumers, undermines attempts to improve animal welfare and disadvantages our farmers. Nothing in current food labelling regulations defines how much British involvement is required before food can qualify as British. A combination of European Union directives, United Kingdom legislation and domestic regulations has created an environment in which consumers are confused and misled by the labelling of their food.
Last week, my office visited some major supermarkets and found several products with no country of origin information. Many others were simply labelled, “Produced in the UK”, which might lead somebody to believe that the meat was from this country. We found a Birds Eye Great British Menu roast beef meal, which admitted on the back that the beef was imported—that is not very British. We even found a Marks and Spencer sandwich, emblazoned with the “nation’s favourite sandwich” and a Union flag, which admitted on the reverse, in rather smaller print, that the corned beef came from Brazil. Those buying a Tesco Disney-branded children’s roast dinner, labelled “Produced in the UK”, would not know that they were feeding their children with chicken from Thailand. They would know that only if they took the time to call the customer helpline.
If people wish to eat imported chicken, that should be their choice. Consumers should be free to choose food from any country. We are in Fairtrade fortnight, and we acknowledge that many people choose to support producers in developing countries. After all, British farmers have important export markets, too. However, real choice requires real information. Clear labelling would empower consumers, not restrict their options. Two thirds of pigmeat imported into this country might have been reared in conditions that are banned here. The current rules force our farmers, who have high welfare standards, to compete against cheaper meat products that can still be labelled as British. Shoppers who wish to endorse higher animal welfare standards by buying British may end up unintentionally backing more cruel methods of production overseas. That is why we think that a system of clear labelling is essential, and it is overwhelmingly supported by the public.
We on the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have looked into the issue a great deal. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if he went to the car park of the Arundel Co-op—if there is one—on Saturday with a petition urging people to endorse, for instance, higher welfare standards for pigs, they would be pushing him aside to sign that petition, but that seconds later the same hands that had gripped the pen to sign the petition would be reaching into the chiller cabinet for the cheapest cut of pork, almost no matter what it was? Labelling is important, but it is not the only part of the equation, is it?
The hon. Gentleman should know that there is indeed a Co-op in Arundel, which I have been into. People should exercise choice. If there is a section of the public that wishes to buy cheaper meat, those people should be free to do so, but they should know where that meat comes from. However, at the moment they do not necessarily know that. Last week we conducted an opinion survey through ICM, a reputable pollster, which found that a majority of the public would support British production if it produced food that was either the same price or even more expensive. Only a minority said that it would prefer the cheaper produce. Nevertheless, it is quite understandable, particularly in the current economic climate, that people may wish to exercise the option of cheaper food, but they must know where it comes from. Of course they should be free to choose. The same survey conducted by ICM showed that 87 per cent. of voters agree that the Government should ensure that the country of origin is displayed clearly on food.
There is not a great deal in the motion with which I can disagree; indeed, I have supported cross-party attempts to get better labelling, so I would support that. However, the one thing that is missing is something about the sourcing of food locally. One way that the public can definitely know that whatever they buy and subsequently eat is what they believe it to be is by knowing that it is produced locally. Should there not have been something in the motion about locally produced food and the way farmers’ markets have shown us the way on what people can expect?
We on the Conservative Benches are strong supporters of locally sourced food. In fact, there is a farmers’ market in Arundel as well. Many people choose to support such markets and to buy food from such outlets, because they wish to support local producers. I strongly endorse that choice, which is good for our domestic producers and local farmers. That choice would be exercised more if there were more transparency about where our food comes from generally because that would raise public consciousness about the origin of food, which is important.
Just to help the hon. Gentleman on that point, does he understand and accept that, in the controversy about labelling, references to local production and farmers’ markets is part of what is being disputed, in some cases before the courts, because of misleading labelling in precisely those terms?
I am not sure that I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I will come to the extent to which a labelling scheme would be lawful under EU law. We on the Conservative Benches believe that it would be. I cannot believe that sensible legislation would get in the way of transparency in labelling. That is surely what all of us, in all parts of the House, should want. Indeed, it should be a fundamental consumer entitlement.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. It seems to me, looking at the motion and the Government’s amendment, that this is a bit of a non-debate. The issue is important in respect of consumer information, but it seems odd for a debate in the House of Commons. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that a much more important issue in relation to food is food security, particularly with climate change in the world. We are not doing enough about security of supply in the United Kingdom. That is the debate worth having in the Chamber, not this one.
I note that the hon. Gentleman’s judgment about whether the motion is worth while did not stop him from making one of his customary interventions. I will turn to the issue of food security, but the two issues are, in fact, linked. If we have rules that effectively discriminate against British farmers, that affects our ability to produce more from our own resources. That is an important link.
I fundamentally disagree that the issue is not important. Not only is it important for consumer confidence in food; it is extremely important for the interests of British producers, who have suffered a great deal. That is particularly true of pigmeat producers, who have suffered declining sales in recent years because the public are, frankly, being duped into believing that they are buying British when they are not. There has been a strong public response to the campaigning on the issue by people such as Jamie Oliver and others. The hon. Gentleman would find that there is public interest in the issue not just in rural areas, but across the country. I therefore do not accept that it is not important.
In view of the Conservatives’ enthusiasm for transparency in the food chain, I would be interested in the hon. Gentlemen’s view on the Competition Commission’s inquiry last year, which found that supermarkets transfer excessive cost and risk to suppliers and which recommended the establishment of a grocery sector ombudsman. If such transparency were introduced in the food supply chain, surely that would assist him and his party in achieving the kind of objectives that he is advocating today. Will the Conservatives therefore support the recommendations of the Competition Commission inquiry into the supermarkets?
I happen to agree with the hon. Gentleman’s support for an ombudsman. Last week at the National Farmers Union conference, I said that our major supermarkets needed to treat British producers with more respect, and that proposal would be one way to make that happen. However, I do not see the direct link, which the hon. Gentleman sought to draw, between that proposal and transparency. A sensible scheme for transparency will require the supermarkets to participate. Indeed, I will make the case that a voluntary scheme has not proven possible because of the unwillingness of the major supermarkets to participate. That is why a compulsory scheme is, I regret to say, now necessary.
I pay due tribute to my friend in this regard, the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). The Competition Commission inquiry into the grocery trade was hamstrung by the unwillingness of suppliers to give evidence, even in camera. That indicates the unfairness of the system. All parties ought to be standing up to the supermarkets to get greater fairness and a genuinely level playing field. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree to that.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but he should be directing his comments to the Government and asking them what action they propose to take in response to the commission’s proposals. We have said that it is time for action, and that it is important both that the interests of consumers and producers are protected and that a proper balance is achieved.
My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Does he agree that although the consumer and the supermarkets are one half of the equation, the other half is the public sector, which is a big purchaser of food? He mentioned the pig industry just now, but hardly any British pork is bought by the Ministry of Defence for the Army. Does he agree that the public sector—the MOD, the health service and the education sector—could do much better in its efforts to purchase British food?
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. It is a disgrace that the public sector procurement of British-produced food remains so low.
In the ICM poll to which I referred earlier, when the public were asked whether they believed that food in hospitals, schools and the armed forces should be produced to British standards or whether it should be sourced at the cheapest cost to the taxpayer, 90 per cent. agreed that it should be produced to British standards.
No. I have been generous in giving way and I want to make some progress.
The Government’s own food watchdog, the Food Standards Agency, states in its best practice guidance:
“Consumers expect meat labelled ‘produce of’ to come from animals that have been born, reared and slaughtered in those countries and we consider this to be good practice to label accordingly.”
Unfortunately, that is simply guidance on good practice; in the real world, poor labelling persists. Despite the FSA guidelines and clear evidence that consumers are being misled and want to see country of origin information clearly displayed on food, too little has been done.
The Government say that they are aware of the problem. Last week, the Secretary of State pledged to
“stamp out unclear, inaccurate or misleading labelling”.
The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), even went on Jamie Oliver’s recent programme, which did so much to inform consumers about the ways in which they are being misled, to agree that the current situation is a “disgrace”. I agree with her. I regret, however, that warm words have been followed by little action. Consumers, retailers and food producers have been frustrated by repeated promises to introduce voluntary schemes, which have clearly not worked.
As long ago as 1998, the then Agriculture Minister, the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), promised to take action. A Ministry of Agriculture press release declared:
“Consumers win as… retailers agree on labelling”.
The following year, the Minister came to the House to proclaim his three objectives, and said:
“I want to give clear unambiguous information on the real place of origin, not place of processing or place of slicing; I want to clamp down on misleading place of origin descriptions; and I want to make further progress by lobbying the European Commission and other member states for a system of clear country of origin labelling.”—[Official Report, 28 October 1999; Vol. 366, c. 1126.]
That was 10 years ago; 10 years on, Ministers are saying exactly the same thing. Despite repeated promises, there is no adequate voluntary agreement and there is no acceptable deal in Europe. It is disappointing that the Secretary of State has now decided that the way forward is a reheated voluntary agreement at home and yet more negotiations with the Commission.
The Secretary of State told last week’s National Farmers Union conference that he had met representatives of the supermarkets to discuss this voluntary agreement. Perhaps the Minister of State will update the House about the progress of those talks, as there is little sign of any action. What of the stores outside the big four supermarkets, which account for around £40 billion-worth of grocery sales every year—some 35 per cent. of the total? Any voluntary scheme that includes only the major supermarkets would cover less than two thirds of sales.
I am afraid that after 10 years of promises, we on the Conservative Benches are sceptical—a view shared by the farming industry—about the chances of meaningful voluntary agreement with the retailers, because those retailers are not willing to provide the information that the public want. The Irish pork scare last year showed the drawback of unclear labelling. Supermarkets withdrew Irish meat in case it had been contaminated, but there was no guarantee that it had not been processed somewhere in this country and was sitting in our fridges with a British label on it.
We live in an age of consumer choice and transparency. Anyone who stands in the way is on the wrong side of the argument. The British Retail Consortium has claimed that in the labelling of food,
“it’s the process rather than the origin that’s important”.
I completely disagree: the production is important, but consumers expect to know the origin of meat, not just where it was last processed. A recent survey found that an overwhelming majority of the public—89 per cent.—felt that a meat product labelled as British or produced in the UK should mean that it was from an animal reared in Britain.
There is no suggestion that food retailers are systematically attempting to mislead the public, and the FSA guidelines exist to prevent that, but unclear labelling that is perfectly permissible under current rules does, in fact, allow consumers to be misled. That is the effect, whether it is intended or not. It is because the retailers—or I should say, some of the retailers—do not accept the need for country of origin labelling that voluntary agreement has proved impossible. It is noticeable, for instance, that Marks and Spencer has accepted the need for compulsory country of origin labelling.
There is a further point to consider. Does my hon. Friend agree that the retailers will accept country of origin labelling when they think it will give them a premium, as sometimes happens with English milk, but they will not when they want to sell an own-brand product and they want to disguise the fact that the meat comes from Hungary or Brazil, for example?
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend that there is evidence that some retailers have been willing to move towards more transparent labelling in respect of premium products, but on the value labels, they have not been so willing. I hope that our survey will give them more confidence that people would support British production across their product ranges, but in any case, I do not think that we should resile from the principle that the consumer should know where the meat comes from, irrespective of the price, and then make a choice. We should stand by that principle.
Opposition Members thus believe that the only course now is to adopt compulsory country of origin labelling. In the first instance, we believe that it should apply to meat and meat products, where the instances of misleading labelling, and their effects, are particularly serious. Beef labelling regulations first introduced in 1997 in reaction to BSE have proved workable. In general, all beef and veal must already indicate the country of origin, by reference to the place where the animal was born, reared and slaughtered. The time has come to extend that practice. So last week, my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and I launched the honest food campaign to ensure that imported meat cannot be simply processed in this country and then labelled with a British flag. We propose to introduce a food labelling regulations (amendment) Bill to make honest labelling of all meat and meat products a statutory requirement. It echoes a number of similar private Members’ Bills that have been promoted by Conservative Members over the past few years, most recently by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon).
To date, the Government have resisted those proposals. I urge them to reconsider and to join a growing consensus in the belief that change is needed. As well as the farming industry and trade associations representing the livestock sector, animal welfare groups such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Compassion in World Farming are also supporting the objectives of the honest food campaign. Let us be clear: those organisations are not supporting another voluntary scheme; they are calling for compulsory country of origin labelling.
Our plans would follow similar approaches taken in America and Australia. Both countries recognised that their consumers were being duped by the existing packaging and the natural demand for the correct information required labelling rules that had legal force. Their experience shows that the cost of better labelling will be negligible. In the United States, a study put the increased cost of origin labelling for poultry at as little as 0.01 per cent., while the EU has said that small businesses consulted would expect a positive impact from compulsory origin labelling.
Of course, new regulations need to be proportionate. That is why we are proposing in our own draft Bill that the regulations will require the labelling of meat ingredients when they represent 10 per cent. or more of a product. So, for example, a typical ready meal would be covered, as most consumers would expect, but not a pepperoni pizza—unless the manufacturer decided otherwise. I believe that this proposal strikes the right balance between the consumer interest and what is practicable.
In their amendment for tonight’s debate and elsewhere, the Government have claimed that what we are proposing, even if desirable, is not possible under EU law. We disagree. Our Bill is not about restricting trade. It will simply require UK processors and retailers to label their products appropriately. Under EU regulations on the marketing of foodstuffs, member states can require the labelling of origin when the absence of such information could mislead or confuse the consumer—and our consumers are being misled.
Ministers claim what we are proposing has been tried already. They point to a recent attempt by the Irish Government to introduce country of origin labelling for poultry, pig and sheepmeat, which the European Commission rejected. The Irish Government may not have been able to convince the Commission, and they were not helped by the fact that the British Government did not support them, but we can produce the evidence that UK consumers are being misled. The latest surveys of public opinion show that. For that and other reasons, we have received legal advice and we are confident that what we propose is permissible. I would be grateful if the Minister explained why the Government believe that it is not.
The Irish Government went to the Commission and at least made the case; they stood up for the interests of their consumers and their farming industry, while other countries have succeeded with labelling schemes within the EU rules. The Commission approved the mandatory origin labelling for Spanish asparagus in 2003 on the ground that consumers would otherwise be misled. This is about political will. The job of a Government who care about their farming industry and consumer choice is to do everything possible to put the case and, if necessary, to challenge and change the rules.
Under this Government, our nation’s reliance on imports has increased by 8 per cent. There have been major declines in the production of cereals and meat. There has been a widening food, drink and feed deficit, which stands at more than £14 billion. The pendulum has been allowed to swing too far away from domestic production. Using imports as a substitute for produce that could perfectly well be grown here is a waste of potential. Increasing self-sufficiency in the food we can produce ourselves should be a strategic priority.
Of course food security must not be an argument for a retreat into protectionism or central planning, but we need properly to assess the role that we want our farmers to play. Conservative Members want to enable our farmers to do what they can do best: produce high-quality food and respond to consumer demand. They cannot do that effectively if the rules governing labelling leave them disadvantaged in the marketplace. Compulsory country of origin labelling is right for Britain and with the EU negotiations under way, now is the time to take a stand.
The Government’s plan for a voluntary agreement on food labelling with retailers has passed its sell-by date, and they must stand up for British consumers and farmers. Other EU countries fight for the interests of their consumers and their farming industries within the trading rules. It is time for the British Government to show the same spine. It is time to end misleading labelling and to enable consumers to choose British food with confidence.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“considers that British consumers should have the information that they need in order to make the choices they want when they buy their food; notes that the European Commission has rejected a recent proposal from the Irish Government for national mandatory country of origin labelling for meat and meat products; believes that clear and unambiguous labelling stating the country of origin of the major ingredients for meat and meat products would level the playing field for British farmers and enable British consumers to show a preference for food which is produced to high standards of animal welfare, health and safety and environmental protection; agrees that where supermarkets and retailers comply with the Food Standards Agency’s guidance on country of origin labelling that this is to the benefit of their consumers; and further believes that the best way to back British consumers and British producers is to support the Government’s calls for tougher and clearer country of origin labelling across Europe.”
I am grateful to the official Opposition for initiating the debate today. After all, it is national potato day and pancake Tuesday, so it is appropriate that we are having the debate. I depart from the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), as I think this is an interesting debate, and I welcome the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) to his new post. I hope that he enjoys a long and happy career as Opposition spokesman. If his performance today is anything to go by, he will do extremely well. I look forward to crossing swords with him on many occasions.
I wrote to the hon. Gentleman about this, but may I express apologies from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is out of the country and unable to return for the debate? As the hon. Gentleman will know from his visit to the National Farmers Union conference last week, agricultural production and the sustainability of that production are a hot topic in discussions in the industry. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in his speech to the NFU:
“The best way for us to safeguard our food security in the 21st century will be through strong, productive and sustainable British agriculture, trading freely with other nations.”
I shall address the debate rather narrowly, although there are many issues that we could discuss under its title. I think that it would be helpful to the House if I addressed some of the immediate points, particularly around the issue of labelling.
We take agricultural production very seriously and we want British farmers to produce as much food as possible. That is not about targets for domestic production or self-sufficiency. We are a trading nation. Some of the food that we grow we export—nearly £12 billion-worth in 2007. The food that we import—mainly things that we cannot grow here—is really important too. This is about productive, efficient farming, the higher yielding seeds, better irrigation and more sustainable use of fertilisers that have transformed agriculture in parts of the world.
The Minister talks about trading freely, but what about trading fairly? If production methods used on the continent are illegal here but give our opponents an advantage, surely people should be made aware of that.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman—indeed, I agree with some of the points made by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs—but there are points of difference, which I wish to explore and explain. I have read the Conservative proposals in detail and they form a well-written document, if I might be allowed to say so, but I have some quite stringent criticisms to make of it, which I will come to.
In meeting demand today, we must ensure that we do not destroy our ability to feed ourselves tomorrow. This is not about either environmental sustainability or production; it has to be both. The general public are becoming increasingly interested in the issue of labelling and the origin of foods, and I agree with the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs that the public should have confidence in the labelling system, so that when they make the choice to buy British, for whatever reason—if they want to support British farming, for whatever purpose—they know that they are buying British produce.
The Minister will know that some of the best arable livestock and some of the best dairy farming in the UK are to be found in Shropshire, but the best way to pay tribute to Shropshire farmers is to support the motion and allow transparency so that UK customers, and indeed European customers, can make an informed choice about buying British, which includes Shropshire.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman about Shropshire, but in a moment I will come to why there are distinct and real differences between the positions described in the motion and in the amendment.
The issue of labelling has recently been played out in the media, too, and the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs was right to highlight Jamie Oliver’s investigation of pig welfare standards in Europe. The programme was broadcast in January and the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and I participated in it, although it was filmed a little while ago. As I said to the NFU conference, Jamie Oliver is to be congratulated on shining the spotlight on an area that deserves to be brought into focus. I hope that today’s debate will continue to raise awareness and improve the public’s understanding of the issue.
My views and those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State are perfectly clear: we want people to be able to buy British and to support British farmers. The British public care about what they eat. Imported food is good and important for variety. It also reflects the cultural diversity of the UK, but by buying British, consumers support the industry and, especially in the pig industry, higher welfare standards. The Conservative party passed the key welfare standard change—the abolition of sow stalls. We implemented that change, which means that our pig farmers are right when they say that they are at a disadvantage. That is why the Select Committee report that examined the issue so carefully and in such detail was so timely. Its conclusions are important.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will come to that point in a little while. I agree, and I have said on a number of occasions that we are improving the ability of the public sector to use its power to support British farming. However, there is further work to do and I am engaged in it. Later in my speech, I will describe exactly what we are doing.
The Minister will be aware that 10 years ago I introduced a private Member’s Bill on this very subject. What is really causing me concern is the fact that she does not seem to exhibit even a frisson of concern that, for 10 years, the Government have not only been trying, but have been warned of the consequences of the disadvantage being deliberately placed in the way of British pig farmers. The competition have had derogations and been able to flood our market with cheaper-sourced meats. That is unacceptable. Surely she must recognise that now is the time to act, not to speak.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) said, the issues facing pig farmers go far wider than labelling. That is why the approach that I am taking—bringing the stakeholders around the table to talk about the range of issues that need to be identified—will allow us to work out a programme of action that I believe will achieve improved confidence in our pig industry, which is what the representatives of the industry say they want to achieve.
Does the Minister accept that her stated objective of encouraging, or indeed enabling, consumers to purchase British-produced goods is closely linked to the Competition Commission’s inquiry into supermarkets? If farmers and growers cannot maintain viable business structures because of the way in which the supermarkets treat them through the supply chain, that desirable objective simply cannot, over time, be fulfilled. What does the Minister’s Department say, and what does she say, in response to the commission’s inquiry, and is she taking the issue up with her colleagues in other Departments?
As the hon. Gentleman says, the Competition Commissioner will report to my ministerial colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. However, I am taking a close interest in the issue. I have asked for up-to-date advice so that I can ensure that the commissioner’s recommendations can be pursued with the full seriousness that they deserve.
May I ask the Minister to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), who referred to fairness? If fairness were displayed to our farmers, they could not only produce more wholesome United Kingdom food, but produce more from the land, which is good for the consumer. Moreover, they would have the money that they need in order to maintain the countryside that is so important to us.
I agree that fairness is extremely important, and that is why the Competition Commissioner’s recommendations are so important. They address what is a clearly defined imbalance of power between the retailers at one end of the food supply chain and the producers at the other. That returns us to a point made earlier about the need to ensure the security of the whole food supply chain. Although we are focusing on labelling tonight, I consider it incumbent on me to examine all the other factors in detail. We need a programme of action to deal with those factors as quickly as possible, so that we need not wait for movement on the European Union’s part and can do what we can within the United Kingdom first.
The right hon. Lady said that the problems facing the pork sector were not all to do with labelling, and that is clearly true. However, does she remember telling Jamie Oliver that misleading labelling was a disgrace, and does she remember undertaking to meet the challenge of remedying that problem? She seems to be backing away from that, and trying to downplay the importance of labelling.
On the contrary. I shall now set out what I consider to be the difference between our wish to conduct a practical search for real solutions to a serious problem and what is, as I hope to demonstrate, a posture adopted by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs.
This issue is essentially about choice. It is about consumers’ ability to make informed and practical choices. People want to know, and have a right to know, where their food comes from. If that is to happen, we need to find practical solutions that are proportionate to the problem and do not result in unnecessary and burdensome regulation which could impose additional costs within the supply chain—costs which, in all likelihood, would eventually affect either farmers’ margins or shoppers’ wallets. That is what is wrong with the Opposition’s proposal.
The Conservative party’s website. The document says that the Conservatives would
“write into law a new definition of country of origin for meat and meat products so that it means what consumers rightly assume”,
which would form part of a food labelling regulations (amendment) Bill.
I accept that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs has received legal advice. It has been published, and I have read it with interest. However, according to legal advice that I received as recently as today in order to test the ideas presented by the Conservatives, the hon. Gentleman’s proposal is certain—not almost certain—to fail the legal test that the European Commission would set.
Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to explain the basis of that legal advice before I give way? His proposal is very widely drawn. It attempts to encompass all meat and meat products. Does he accept that, while our aim is broadly the same, we in government must plot a course that will genuinely bring about change for the better, rather than leading to the raising of false hopes among livestock farmers and easy wins in the short term? That could happen tomorrow, if only the political will were brought to bear. The hon. Gentleman has used that phrase twice, once to the National Farmers Union and once here today.
I am grateful to the Minister. She has cited legal advice which I hope she will publish, but why have the Government not proposed a country of origin labelling scheme to the European Commission? That would enable us to hear the Commission’s view on the merits of such a scheme. Is it not clear that EU legislation enables a country of origin labelling scheme to be adopted domestically when consumers are being misled? Surely the Minister agrees that consumers are being seriously misled, so why is she not trying to put that point to the Commission?
That is precisely the work that we are doing. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that when a case can be made to demonstrate that customers are being misled, that case should be made.
As for the second prize for the worst example—the Marks and Spencer sandwich that the hon. Gentleman mentioned—he did not appear to be quarrelling with the labelling, which is quite clear. Marks and Spencer does not seek to hide the fact that the sandwich—a corned beef sandwich—is made with Brazilian beef. That is stated on the label, and is reasonably well printed. It is the packaging and the marketing to which the hon. Gentleman objected, and in that respect I entirely agree with him. It could, I think, be argued that when such a claim is made and the marketing is carried out in such a way—the advertising is another issue—the country of origin should appear in the same field of view. Otherwise, there is a potential for consumers to be misled. I want to establish whether there are options allowing us to encourage clarity of that kind. When such encouragement does not work—[Interruption.] I shall explain in a moment why we will need to approach the European Commission to make that change.
I am grateful to the Minister. Does she agree that, while Marks and Spencer’s other labelling is entirely commendable, the emblazoning of the Union flag all over the front of that sandwich makes the labelling misleading? Does she agree that—as I have said to Sir Stuart Rose—the packaging should be re-engineered so that it does not mislead consumers?
Both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have met representatives of eight of the big retailers and representatives of the British Retail Consortium. We discussed the issue as recently as three weeks ago, and we continue to raise it.
I accept what the hon. Gentleman has said about that particular sandwich. I think it is clear from all the evidence that he has seen, from the evidence that the Jamie Oliver programme uncovered and from the experience of anyone who shops in supermarkets that British retailers know the value of the Union flag as a selling point for food. Precisely because it is of such value to them as retailers, British customers ought to be able to rely completely on the fact that, if it is being used to market in such a way, they understand what they are purchasing and are not being misled.
Does the Minister accept that a simple way out would be to put to the Commission the point that although it claims that there should not be country of origin labelling unless consumers might be misled, the possibility of consumers being misled would be reduced to zero if all products across the EU were clearly labelled by country of origin? Should that not be a compulsory, EU-led scheme, driven by the British Government?
I am not sure that that is the case. If we were to have all country of origin information on all products, what would we do with, for example, a pizza that is entirely made in the UK but that might be made with imported wheat or cheese or pepperoni sausage? How much of that would have to go on the label? I do not agree that in all cases all the products need to be displayed on the label. If we start to consider narrowing that down, we come closer to the Opposition proposal, but I believe that that would fail the challenge that the European Commission would set it, as I have described.
That does not, however, mean that there might not be a case for having a more narrowly drawn definition. The Spanish asparagus case was mentioned. I understand that that was tinned Spanish asparagus, and that the European Commission has allowed it as an exception—as a demonstrably very narrowly drawn exception. Therefore, if we are to make progress and persuade the European Commission that there is something that we can do in the UK because of the danger of consumers being misled, we must be much smarter in how we do it and not use the blunderbuss approach suggested from the Conservative Front Bench.
Could the right hon. Lady not then apply for an exception for British pork—in the same way that the Spanish have applied for an exception for their tinned asparagus—given the uneven playing field that has been introduced since 1999 because of animal welfare standards? That seems to me to be perfectly reasonable. Why has she not done it?
It is certainly something that I will be looking into. [Interruption.] Well, it is something that I am absolutely committed to seeing whether we can achieve, because I think it will help British consumers and will allow them to use the power of their spending to support British farmers, and I think they deserve that.
There may be options for action in the UK or England for some produce. I am not yet in a position to start to debate the detail of what those options might be, but there is certainly no simple solution. I want to explore them further. The taskforce that I am establishing to examine the changes taking place in the pigmeat supply chain is the forum to do that, as there will be immediately available to it the advice of the Food Standards Agency, farmers, slaughterers, processors and retailers, all of whom have agreed to join the taskforce.
Does the right hon. Lady not agree that, at the very least, it should not be possible to pass off meat produced from livestock raised in one country but that is then slaughtered, butchered or processed in another country as the product of that latter country? To my mind, that is simply passing off incorrectly the origin of that meat, and that must be covered by the EU rules.
That is within the scope of the discussions that are taking place in the European Commission about how we as a Community should improve the laws on labelling, in order to make sure that misleading labelling is not used in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes.
Let me respond to the accusation, which has been repeated, that nothing has been done in 10 years. First, the FSA has been created, and the guidance it has issued has brought about real changes in the quality of labelling. That has clearly opened up the possibility of further criticism, which has been trenchantly made today—
The guidance was updated again in November. The FSA is quite clear about what should be included in any origin claims. In fact, it is because of FSA influence that support has been won across Europe for precisely the point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). We should give full credit to the FSA for the influence that it has brought to bear in winning support for the improvements that are beginning to flow through and for there now being such debates in Europe.
If the option for changing the rules for labelling on a UK basis only becomes viable, I will pursue it, but I am aware—as the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs should be—that such UK options must find the approval of the European Commission. His proposals would have to find its approval.
May I just finish this point? Given the Conservatives’ famously robust view of Europe, how do they propose to get their new law through such scrutiny? They are completely isolated in Europe, and already lack support for their key policies, such as renegotiating a ratified treaty of Lisbon. On that key policy, they are supported by the Dutch animals party, the French hunting, fishing, nature, tradition party, Sinn Fein and some communists. [Interruption.] On renegotiating the treaty of Amsterdam regarding the social chapter, they have no support from any quarter—[Interruption.]—and they do not like it when they are reminded of it. In both such instances, there is no support for their position from any of the 26 member states. [Interruption.] This is an important and serious point: how will their proposal on food labelling fare any differently from these two other no-hope options that are key policy objectives of the Conservative party? I believe that its policy statement is a dishonest position because it cannot be achieved. I will want to study it carefully to see if there is any merit at all in it, but I am not convinced that there is.
We all agree that consumers need clear information to enable them to make informed decisions, but the Opposition’s simplistic solution of introducing new domestic legislation is not the silver bullet that they are asking this House, the farming community and citizens to believe it is. They claim that there will be no costs incurred, but on what do they base that claim? Can they be sure that businesses and families who are struggling to make ends meet would not be adversely affected? How will they get their plans on to the statute book without a costly, complicated and drawn-out row with the European Commission, which has already sent back less demanding proposals from the Irish Government?
Our approach is more proportionate; it is based on what is deliverable. Even a narrowly drawn UK option that might succeed would take years to succeed, and I am not prepared to wait for that. I am prepared to make the approaches that are necessary and I will do so, but I want improvements now. More importantly, I want to see what can be delivered and for it to be delivered as quickly as possible.
One thing that has not been mentioned is genetically modified food and its labelling. We know that there is a clear embargo on GM-produced food, but there is far less clarity about animals that have been fed on GM feed and subsequently come into the human food chain—they have to come from abroad. Will the Minister clarify the labelling position in that regard?
My hon. Friend is right to point out that it is possible for consumers unknowingly to buy meat products of animals that have been raised on GM feed. If consumers have a concern about that, they can follow particular supermarkets that have a clear policy on it. It is the subject of another interesting debate, although not one for today. British farmers will hope that we return to the subject in more detail on another occasion.
Speaking of a debate to which we may return on another occasion and given that this one is about British agricultural production and food labelling, can the Minister say a little about security of supply? As I have said, that is a growing issue, given that climate change is accelerating worldwide and will adversely affect food production both in countries from which we have hitherto received food and in this country. Security of supply is vital and it is a growing issue, to coin a phrase.
My hon. Friend is right to mention security of supply, which covers at least two areas. One is the need to ensure that we farm in a way that is environmentally sustainable in the long term—that is one way of ensuring food security. A second is the need to understand what is happening in some of the sectors to ensure that, as we mentioned when discussing the Competition Commission’s concerns, there is not an undue level of power and that the risk in a food supply chain is not borne disproportionately by one part of it.
That is why I hope that drawing from the model that the Dairy Supply Chain Forum has used for many years and using the same approach in the pig industry, following on from the Select Committee’s recommendations, will allow us to understand the pressures within the whole food supply chain, so that we can bring about a more sustainable and secure sector, within which confidence grows. The farmers, in particular, tell me that they fear that confidence levels are not as good as they should be. [Interruption.] The representatives of the British pig industry also tell me that it is a very vibrant industry where a lot of good work is going on and that we should be careful not to talk the industry down to the point where new blood is reluctant to come into it because people do not have confidence about security. [Interruption.] All the points being raised from the Conservative Benches are precisely why we need to examine that detail.
The way forward that we are proposing will not impose unnecessary burdens on the supply chain. While we will work with our international partners to deliver clear and unambiguous labelling provisions across the Community, we will engage with the whole domestic supply chain to deliver improvements before EU regulations come into force. What that means in practice is working with the Pig Meat Supply Chain Task Force—I have mentioned it more than once this evening—which I announced at the National Farmers Union annual general meeting last week, to identify practical solutions to improve labelling, not just for retail sales, but in the hospitality sector. I anticipate that the work the taskforce will do will be able to be applied across other sectors of the food chain.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have been pressing retailers to use the Food Standards Agency’s best practice guidance across their ranges. That guidance was extensively consulted on, reviewed in November and is already a tougher standard than that set down by the European Commission. We will continue to hold processors and retailers to account, while recognising the valuable strides that they have taken to tackle this issue.
We have helped Departments to buy local food—my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) rightly emphasises the importance of local food. Did the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs even know that anyone who has milk in their tea or eats an egg in a Department is supporting the British food industry? That is not to say that I am complacent and that there is not more to do. All the practical measures I have mentioned will have a greater impact on helping consumers back the British farmer if they want to do so than the hon. Gentleman’s costly and bureaucratic solution. That is why I urge the House to support the Government’s amendment and reject his ill-thought-out proposals.
It is important to know the truth about what we buy. The description on the outside can be technically accurate, but a million miles from reality. For instance, in 1997, some people thought that they had elected a Labour Government. If I may pour some opprobrium on myself, I can say that in 1995 I led my then 11-year-old younger brother along the righteous path of supporting Blackburn Rovers on the prospectus that they were premier league champions and therefore the best team in the country—all technically true at the time. It has since led to significant disappointment, albeit character building.
Accurate labelling of British meat produce, however, actually does matter. It matters because consumers have the right to know what it is that they are eating. As things stand, lambs imported from France but slaughtered in the UK can be passed off as British produce. Pig carcases brought in from Ireland and processed into sausages in the UK can be sold as British sausages, and milk from Belgium that has been churned in the UK can be sold as butter from Britain.
When consumers make their choices, they should do so with the fullest possible range of information. The current situation is not acceptable, because it effectively allows shoppers to be conned into believing that they are buying British when they are not. It is not simply a matter of wanting to buy British for the sake of it. Indeed, many consumers use buying British as a reliable proxy for shopping ethically. That is the case because British standards of animal welfare, and of environmental impact in farming, are among the highest in the world. Of course, buying genuinely British produce means reducing food miles, and significantly cutting the carbon emissions involved in food production.
Mandatory country of origin labelling would allow us to make those ethical choices with confidence. Of course, investing in the best possible animal welfare standards and in the highest environmental specifications is not cheap, as has already been pointed out. Even with mandatory labelling, we still face the problem of the produce of other countries gaining a competitive advantage from lower standards. Equalisation of standards across the EU to British levels is crucial if we are to tackle climate change, improve animal welfare standards and give our farmers the benefit that they deserve for taking the lead in ethical food production. But the Government are wrong if they think that that is all we need to do. If I were permitted to merge the Conservative motion with the Government amendment—taking out the odd word, of course—we would have a perfectly presentable proposition, but even combined, those solutions would be weak and inadequate.
The Conservative motion is fine as far as it goes—there is nothing in it to disagree with—but I would question why the concentration is simply on country of origin labelling. If we are to empower consumers, we must ensure that they have information on environmental impact, such as the carbon, energy and water use impacts of the produce, as well as country of origin. Given that British produce incurs fewer food miles and has a more benign environmental impact, environmental labelling would also be a boost for British farming. We surely do not want some kind of complicated, expensive and bureaucratic multiple scheme. The answer must be a simple and straightforward labelling system that incorporates all that information.
I note that the hon. Gentleman refers to himself as the shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Can he therefore tell us what he meant by calling in the Western Morning News some months ago for proper regulation of prices in the food chain? Is that a Liberal Democrat prices and incomes policy?
We believe in having a proper supermarket regulator to ensure that we do not just have the surface intervention that we have talked about so far in this debate. We need effective intervention to create fairness in the market, on behalf of farmers in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and mine. It is a shame that the Conservative motion has overlooked the environmental aspects of labelling. It must be a blind spot for the party.
I am intrigued by the idea that the hon. Gentleman would like to support both the Opposition motion and the Government amendment. I want to understand how he makes the choice between our words, which call
“on the Government to introduce a mandatory country of origin labelling scheme”
and the Government’s, which call
“for tougher and clearer country of origin labelling across Europe.”
The Government do not use any reference to introduction or to the word “mandatory”. Is the hon. Gentleman supporting each side in the same way?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but he clearly misheard me. We will vote for the Conservative motion and against the Government amendment, for the reasons that he has given. The point is that there are many good things in the amendment; the Government talk about the need for fairness and equivalence across the European Union, and that was what I meant in talking about points with which we would agree.
I am very concerned by what I heard from the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon). It seems that the Conservatives do not agree with the point that I have repeatedly made and that many hon. Friends have made: there is a need to regulate the supply chain in the dairy industry. Every dairy farmer whom I know in my constituency wants to see that, but the hon. Member for Newbury does not.
My hon. Friend is right. We are talking about farm gate prices and the exploitation of the farmers whom the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) claims to represent and to stand up for. We are talking about a visible hand in the marketplace to ensure fairness—something we are not hearing from the other two parties.
A year ago, in DEFRA questions, I asked the Secretary of State to introduce a mandatory food labelling scheme, and I know that I was not the first to do so. The problem then, and now, is that without a regulator to enforce such a scheme, it would have limited impact. British farmers struggle because of the economic system in which they operate. Clear labelling would give consumers choice and allow British farms to take proper advantage of their high standards, but it would not change the reality, which is that our food market is dysfunctional and hopelessly unfair.
British consumers and British farmers are disadvantaged by the overwhelming market power of the huge retailers and processors. In response to this situation, others have called for a relatively passive market ombudsman, as we have already discussed. The person in that position would oversee the market and investigate complaints. Like the motion, that is okay as far as it goes, but I want to see something far more powerful. In other words, I want to see the introduction of a supermarket and food market regulator that will ensure fair prices and fair practice with regard to all produce—a strong and enforceable code covering the full range of grocery outlets, backed by a robust and proactive enforcement mechanism that would allow a labelling scheme such as the one suggested by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) to work. The work of a proactive regulator would also prevent powerful players in the market from abusing their power.
I think that the House deserves a little more clarity about what the hon. Gentleman is proposing. Can he confirm that the role of that regulator is far in excess of that recommended by the Competition Commission? The hon. Gentleman has referred repeatedly to fair prices, and does he agree that they can be achieved only if the regulator has the power to intervene in setting prices? That is a throwback to the policies of the ’60s and ’70s rather than a policy of today. Will he make it clear whether it is Liberal party policy?
I can make it absolutely clear. We are talking about ensuring that farmers get a fair price at the farm gate for their produce. If that means intervening and outlawing unfair exploitative prices paid by large companies on the processing and retail sides of the food chain, we stand absolutely full square on the side of the exploited British farmer. We are not paying lip service to one problem that is relatively easy to solve; we are dealing with a systemic problem that is affecting British farming.
That is a very interesting point. Clearly, in a free society, we surely should be able to intervene to ensure fair prices for those people in the marketplace who are least powerful. That is crucial. I will come to food production and food security later, but if we are to ensure that security, we must have some means to guarantee it. The hon. Gentleman is essentially saying that we must accept the over-weaning power of certain sections of the food market and that we can concentrate—
Order. I am reluctant to intervene, but I trust that the hon. Gentleman will relate his remarks to labelling.
That is indeed what I am proceeding to do.
To recap, we will support the Conservative motion, but it is important to highlight that we believe that accurate food labelling should be only one aspect of a more comprehensive approach to ensuring a fair market in food production. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, to whom I pay tribute and whom I welcome to his new role—he made a strong and sound case for his motion—stated his belief in mandatory intervention, but that belief appears to start and end with accurate labelling. Indeed, he stated at the NFU conference last week that
“a culture of responsibility is better than a culture of regulation”.
That sounds chillingly similar to the approach of his shadow Chancellor and, indeed, the Prime Minister ahead of the banking crisis, but I agree with Peter Kendall, the NFU president, who said that
“when there is proven abuse of the voluntary approach, and it has been tried and tested and failed, that tells me that regulation is urgently required”.
The Conservatives have not chosen to debate British agriculture, as has been mentioned, and the wider fundamental and systemic problems that face our industry; instead, they have chosen to discuss a very important symptom of those problems. For what it is worth, the Conservative proposal on this issue mirrors ours—congratulations to them—but although we will support the motion, I cannot help but observe that it simply represents the party of the free market complaining about the consequences of the free market.
We need regulation that will help our farmers and consumers, and we need to be consistent in our demands for fairness throughout the market. How many of us go shopping and seek out Fairtrade coffee in one aisle, before heading down another aisle to buy milk to put in that coffee sourced from an exploited British dairy farmer who is paid less for that litre of milk than it cost them to produce it? I am passionate about ensuring fair trade for coffee growers in Colombia and for dairy farmers in Cumbria.
Of course, consumers can achieve a lot by buying Fairtrade produce and by buying British produce, and that is why it is so important that we have a comprehensive and mandatory food labelling system to empower consumers and to give them the information that they need to exercise choice, but consumer action is not enough. Farmers and consumers have the right to expect that their Government will be on their side, and now is the time to intervene and to take sides.
We take the side of farmers and consumers, not big business. I am not anti-market; but in food production as in banking, we want the market to be our servant, not our master. When we have huge fluctuations in production, short-sighted profit chasing by over-powerful supermarkets and farmers struggling to survive, the market is not working.
Would the hon. Gentleman care to say something about the operation of the market and food security? It seems to me that the operation of market in the UK is not doing as much as it should for food security, which is a relevant issue when we are discussing British agricultural production.
That is absolutely correct, and the hon. Gentleman makes the point well. Ensuring that we have a form of fair trade for British farmers means that we maintain capacity in our farming sector and that we do our bit to ensure that we have food security within our borders and, indeed, that we contribute to production across the world. I will attempt to reach those points very shortly.
If I can crave your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall cite two great liberals. Adam Smith famously talked about markets reaching equilibrium through the movement of the invisible hand in the marketplace. He suggested that markets will naturally ensure a fair and appropriate outcome, but I am afraid that that works only if we assume that markets are rational and that all the players are equally balanced in power. The increasingly fashionable John Maynard Keynes would, of course, disagree. He said:
“The market is able to remain irrational for longer than you can remain solvent.”
How many people whose homes have been repossessed, how many unemployed workers and how many British farmers can identify with that statement today? The debate is about British agricultural production and food labelling, but if we are not careful, there will be barely any British agricultural produce left to label.
In the past two years, we have lost 900 million tonnes of milk production capacity. That represents a staggering 8 per cent. drop. On a human level, that is two dairy farmers leaving the industry every day. As we have heard, the British pig industry has shrunk by 40 per cent. in a decade. We now import 81 per cent. of our bacon and 45 per cent. of other pork products. Some 70 per cent. of that imported pork was reared in conditions that would have been illegal in this country. Our historical uplands are shedding skilled hill farmers at a rapid rate. I am thinking of valleys such as Longsleddale in my constituency; of the eight working hill farms still there, only one has a possible line of succession. Not since the black death have we seen such a reduction in our food production capacity. Incidentally, given the Government’s decision to flout Sir Iain Anderson’s recommendations and not upgrade the Pirbright facility, who is to say that the black death might not be back on the agenda some time soon?
Of course, the reduction in farming capacity after the black death was a consequence of—how shall I put it?—a reduction in demand for food, but the Government are overseeing a terrifying drop in farming capacity at a time when the world population is set to increase by 50 per cent., and demand for food is set to double in the next 40 years. Is it not madness that because of an inability to make markets work for us, we are allowing ourselves to become dependent on environmentally damaging imports—on the produce of developing countries that ought to be concentrating on feeding their own impoverished populations?
I shall be brief. Despite my feelings about the EU, I point out that surely at the core of the issue are the World Trade Organisation rules. The whole point about those rules is that they are rigged in favour of big farmers who produce genetically modified organisms. Surely that is something that we must fear.
I certainly agree that the rules are, by and large, rigged in favour of powerful players. It is the same on the international stage as it is here on the British stage. We can talk about fair trade all we like, but we will mean it only if we are prepared to take action on the issue. That is why a supermarket regulator is so important.
Surely it is madness if our inability to make the market work for us means that we allow our food capacity to drop like a stone. The Government are presiding over a reduction in food production capacity, but can they not even at this stage learn the lessons from the Conservative failures of the 1980s, when the Conservatives allowed much of our manufacturing industry to disappear? The foolishness of that is only too apparent now. It is not too late for the Government to intervene to support British agriculture and ensure security of food production, world-class environmental and animal welfare standards, and a thriving future for our farmers. Introducing a mandatory labelling scheme is one step that they could take, and I appeal to them to do so.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House that although there is no time limit on Back Benchers’ speeches tonight, time is running out. It would be a good idea for all hon. Members who want to catch my eye to bear in mind the amount of time left, so that we can allow as many colleagues as possible to contribute.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am glad to have caught your eye, given the number of Labour Back Benchers who want to speak. Like the Minister, I want to speak about two aspects of the motion: the specifics of the case for mandatory labelling, and the wider and larger issue of food security. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) has quite properly raised the subject in every Member’s contribution, so I want to declare that I will address that issue.
It is important to acknowledge that across the world, virtually every political party in every Government has attempted to shelter behind a misleading definition of country of origin. In some respects, the origins of that definition are to be found in the rules of the Codex Alimentarius Commission and the WTO. That definition describes the country of origin as the last place of substantial change.
The public are well aware that if, for instance, someone buys a Vauxhall car that is claimed to have been made in Britain, it should not surprise them if the spark plugs in the car come from somewhere else. That would not mean that the substantial change in the construction of the car did not make it British. However, if a product such as a Cumberland sausage is marketed as a British Cumberland sausage, the substantial change, as far as the public is concerned, is not to be found in the origins of the recipe or the origins of the assembly, but in the origins of the meat.
We have allowed ourselves to be caught in a confusion which is exploited by those parts of the international food processing chain which seek to dominate and exploit food markets, rather than to pursue sustainable food markets. The misleading of the public is incorporated into the global rules that are creating much of the chaos and food insecurity that we urgently need to address. It is wrong to blame a Labour Government for 10 years of inactivity and an absence of progress.
The absence of progress goes back at least 42 years. I do not blame the Minister for not being aware of that, as it was clearly before she was born. In 1966—the last time an English football team won the World cup—the Food Standards Committee was asked to examine the abuse of the words “fresh”, “natural” and “pure”. In the discussions and deliberations that followed, from that time until last year, the matter was bounced backwards and forwards in a series of consultations that sought to secure a voluntary agreement on the meaning of the words.
In 1987, a trading standards survey looked at how supermarkets and shops were treating those labels. It found that 79 per cent. of the shops were downright misleading and 11 per cent. were extremely dubious. Only one in 10 of the marketing claims had any truth in them. That illustrates the difficulty with the voluntary path. It has taken a prodigious amount of time to get next to nowhere. We must recognise the urgency of the matter, not only because the public have a right to know, but because outside the House there is a drive and desire on the part of the public to shop ethically and sustainably where they can. In many cases that means a relocalisation of their food agenda. I welcome that, but we should be aware how far we are from such a process.
I shall refer to two reports. The first was produced at the beginning of last year by Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming. It is called “Ethical Hijack” and catalogues the systematic attempt to mislead the public with claims that are not true. Earlier I mentioned farmers markets. There was a case last year arising from the fact that Heinz introduced a soup called farmers market soup, even though none of the ingredients had come from a farmers market.
When that was challenged at the Advertising Standards Authority, the case failed. It was claimed that the contents came from farmers, and that the product was being brought to market, so technically it could be called farmers market soup. That did not equate with the terms as they would be understood by the public. Real definitional ambiguities are being exploited by those responsible for the labelling in order to deceive the public. It is an act of marketing deception.
I am glad that my hon. Friend raised that case. I know a bit about it, as I was one of the complainants. We got down to whether there should have been an apostrophe and, if so, where it should have gone. The problem was that Heinz rose above the fray, so to speak. Its representatives said, “Look—we’re just going to do it.” There was no comeback whatever; without going through a whole court process there was no possibility, apart from appealing to its better judgment, of getting the company to rethink. It refused to do so.
I am grateful for that intervention, because it strengthens the point that I am trying to make. There should be a mandatory framework, mandatory definitions, mandatory penalties and a mandatory time frame. The last thing that any of us have is the luxury of another 42 years of meandering around, systematically going nowhere. [Interruption.] None of us has that luxury, although we may wish to.
There has been a terrible sense that labelling has been abused in this country. I feel sorry for Patrick Holden, the director of the Soil Association, who in June 2007 found himself denounced in a Guardian article. The newspaper had put a trail on the locally, organically grown carrots from his farm in mid-Wales, which were purchased by Sainsbury’s supermarkets for sale. It found that the carrots had been taken to a super-packer in East Anglia and that by the time they finally reached the shops back in mid-Wales, they had travelled 230 miles—which stretches the notion of “local” beyond credibility. The same applied to carrots bought at Waitrose, which were labelled as having been selectively chosen from “local growers”; those growers happened to be local in Italy. So, too, with bags of parsnips: they were labelled “Organic English”, but sourced in Scotland. Watercress, labelled as having been grown by the sparkling chalk streams of Hampshire, had been imported from Portugal.
There are long rivers in Hampshire.
All that takes us into the world of the absurd, and there is a real danger that the discrediting of the labelling process discourages the public from acting ethically, as we desperately need them to.
In 2006, the National Consumer Council did a survey called “Greening Supermarkets”. It found that fresh vegetables labelled as seasonally available in the UK included leeks from Kenya, watercress from the USA, carrots from Egypt and cabbage from South Africa. All that went on behind the guise of misleading labelling. That is what happens when we try to drive changes through a voluntary process. It is a licence to cheat. Supermarkets compete with each other for volume of sales, and when one starts to cheat, the pressure for others to join them increases. We have to engage with the case for mandatory labelling—not only for UK meat, but for UK food produce in general.
I want to go on to a second report, about a bigger issue. The Soil Association has just produced “An inconvenient truth about food”, which takes us into the most difficult and challenging food security issues faced in the UK. Historically, UK Government policy, as espoused by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Treasury, has been fundamentally ill conceived on the issue. The problem goes back not 10 years, but to 1817, when David Ricardo wrote “Principles of Political Economy and Taxation”. He set out the theory of comparative advantage; the example that he used was the trade between the UK and Portugal. Since then, the UK has hidden behind a presumption that it did not really matter what we produced ourselves, because there would always be plenty of food “out there”—wherever “there” was. Britain was a trading nation, we should make a virtue of that, and if that meant a decline in UK farming and food production, well, “C’est la vie”.
We are now faced with a fundamental change in the economics and politics of world food supply. Since 2006, there has been a steady escalation in global food prices. There have been food riots in 14 countries, from the tortilla riots in Mexico to the pasta protests in Italy. We are seeing a fundamental shift in the notion of food security and self-sufficiency. Even UK supermarkets are starting to acknowledge that they can no longer move their purchasing plans around from country to country, hopping between continents, because of countries’ increased reluctance to export food when they cannot feed themselves. Since June 2008, the consequence of that in the UK alone has been an increase in staple food prices of 13.7 per cent. That is felt in the wallets and on the kitchen tables of households across the country.
What we are being asked to address as a Parliament, and what the country will have to address, is the word “resilience”. What food resilience is there in the UK? Resilience means the ability of our country to deal with food shocks and long-term changes in food supply. I want to list the weaknesses in our current position that make us non-resilient. We are massively dependent on nitrogen fertilisers. Last year, we imported 1 million tonnes of nitrogen fertilisers, which are 310 times as damaging to the environment as carbon dioxide. We are heavily dependent in that we do not source our own fertilisers but have to import them from abroad. Sixty-nine per cent. of the pesticides used in the UK were imported from outside. Ninety-five per cent. of UK food is oil-dependent.
Most worrying of all is the question of UK soil. Twenty years ago, the country was warned that almost half of the soil in the UK was vulnerable to erosion. The Environment Agency estimated that in the years 1995 to 1998 we lost 2.3 million tonnes of agricultural soil to erosion, directly as a consequence of our reliance on intensive farming. We have at various times discussed in this House our dependence on peak oil, but we have had no discussions on peak food or peak phosphate. Phosphate is a finite mineral resource that will be under huge pressure, given the increasing demands from China and from India. In the past few months, phosphates have increased in price by 700 per cent. to over £185 a tonne.
We need to address all those issues when we consider how resilient UK food policy is, even before we begin to build into the equation the role of food and the land in meeting UK carbon emission targets. We need a UK plan for food; what we have at the moment is a million miles from that. We have a policy based on a wing and a prayer. This country, and our future generations, require an awful lot more than that.
I can keep some of my remarks brief, on the basis that the case for improved food labelling in this country has been made very cogently by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). My job is made easier by the fact that the Minister did not even attempt to say why the do nothing policy of the last 10 years was justified.
Normally, when talking on this subject, I start from the point of view of those whom I represent in Eddisbury—the farmers, producers and those allied to food production in a constituency that is at the heart of the largest and most productive dairy field in Europe. I pay tribute to all those who participate in the farming sector in my constituency, dealing with meat, potatoes and all the other foodstuffs that Cheshire is famous for. I introduced a food labelling Bill very early on as an MP, following my entry after a by-election in 2000, and I did so again in 2002. The matter has since been taken on by others, not least my hon. Friends the Members for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) and for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon). Every time, we have come up against this Government, who have mouthed warm words. They have been determined to see us off, but nothing has happened. We have had 10 years of sclerosis over this law, which is needed as much now as it was then.
Instead, I have decided to start with an attempt to interpret the thoughts and motivations of Labour Ministers and the Labour party in government. They came into office very suspicious of farmers—even despising them to some degree. I do not think that was just to do with the fact that farmers were landowners, but because, as they saw it, farmers did not represent consumers, and consumers equalled voters. The Government were obsessed exclusively with voters, rather than taking into account the interests of the whole nation. They got rid of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and got rid of producer representation at the Cabinet table. They introduced the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and then subsumed agriculture and the farming interest into something far more focused on the consumer interest. That was followed by the Food Standards Agency, which began with DEFRA—indeed, it was prayed in aid by the Minister—but as soon as they could, they offloaded it from DEFRA, and gave accountability for it to the Department of Health. It is at arm’s length to such an extent that we have not had a Health Minister talk about that subject for as long as I can remember, and I have been a shadow Health Minister for three years. There is an absence of Government accountability for producers. They have put everything on a consumer basis.
That helps us to understand why something has gone seriously wrong with food labelling. The Government’s instinct is to recognise that our arguments are sound and well based, and much of the Government’s amendment to the motion, and the Minister’s speech, shows that they agree with many of our arguments. But when it comes to the nub of the matter, what has to change to take us from inaction and ineffectiveness? We still have the same problem. There are examples of Union Jacks on Thai imported chicken stuffed with hormones. There are examples even today—there certainly were 10 years ago—of pork pies coming from Brazil. They are not the problem as far as traceability is concerned. The example I gave 10 years ago was of something called the “swine stamp”—people knew exactly which pig was the source of which product because in Brazil they have traceability down to a fine art. The problem was that it was packaged with a Union Jack on the front once it reached these shores to be processed and sold. The same is true of Swedish meat products, where traceability is provided through swedishtasty.com—which is interesting nomenclature.
My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs has always raised the issue of bacon coming from Denmark, as I did 10 years ago. It has been very uncompetitively produced, as opposed to British production—
Well, it was uncompetitive from our point of view, of course.
Some 10 years later, we still have bar-coding technology and a voluntary code for supermarkets that is not working, despite our praise for their promotions of British production from time to time. We have heard the Government using the same words that they use in the motion today, which is distinct from the mandatory introduction that we propose. They are simply calling for better food labelling provisions, and they are calling on the EU to do something. That has not worked, and in the context of the commoditisation of food production of premium products in this country, our farmers have been left in an unfair position. That is why we have to argue strongly for food labelling. This is not just a narrow point, because it brings to a head many of the issues that give us a fair position in the marketplace, give our farmers a fair chance to compete, and above all, allow the consumer to make an informed choice. That informed choice will ensure that consumers can give the support to the British farmers that they often want to give, but it will be a choice.
I have been much encouraged by some of the statements by the Secretary of State and the Minister, but unfortunately the situation has always collapsed when it comes to actually changing the law. The Government’s approach has shown a clear obsession with the consumer interest and negligence of the producer interest. In fact, the interests of consumers and the nation are best served by ensuring that consumers have an informed choice, and that they have the abilities that we propose.
I shall not run through the detail of what can be done legally, because it is in our motion and our plans, which I am glad the Minister has read in detail. I suggest that, as we have argued for many years, the Government get some new advice, for goodness’ sake try, and above all show leadership. Many people have argued that we need to ensure that we gain the benefits that the EU gives us in the marketplace, but it has absolutely failed to provide leadership in this area. Instead, there has been followership. The EU has followed the pace of the slowest performer across Europe.
The Government have been given much information and many warnings over the past 10 years, and they need to represent our farmers, who are some of the most high-quality, efficient farmers in the world, let alone Europe. We need to ensure that those farmers get a proper chance to compete and to supply the market. We need leadership from the Government, in the lawful way proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs in his cogent speech. That is the way forward, and it is our policy. The Government should forget pride of authorship and whatever advice they have been given over the past 10 years, which has clearly been wrong. We want to see our policy delivered, and frankly, we are quite happy for the Government to steal it. If they do not introduce it, we will. I hope that the chance will come soon.
I read Farmers Weekly, and this morning when I was reading the editorial comment, I saw that Jane King could not tell the difference between what the Conservative party believes in and what the Government believe in. I hope that she will read the speeches made in the debate and see that there is a massive void between a Government who are determined to protect the European Commission from making any decision whatever and my own party, which is determined to make a difference, to fight for our farmers and to allow our consumers to help our farming industry.
The Minister was right to mention the egg sector, but her speech was definitely a rotten one. She did not even manage to answer my question in an intervention about what she was doing to ensure that the Ministry of Defence bought British bacon for our troops. They are fighting for us and dying for us, and they deserve to be fed by us. I hope that she will do what she can to put the situation right.
As for the Liberal Democrats, they are absolutely right in their soundbites and I hope that they get their policies in order so that the dairy farmers, who know that they are being exploited, at least hear something that they can hope will be delivered. At the moment, the Liberal Democrats do not have a policy that has any credibility whatever, and I am sorry about that.
In my constituency, farming really matters. The 2001 census showed that there were more than 3,600 people employed in it, which represents 9 per cent. of the local work force. My constituents need this Government or any Government to do three things, and the next Conservative Government will certainly do them. The first is to examine the red tape burden on our farmers. Compulsory electronic ID tags for sheep have been trialled in my constituency, and one of my constituents wrote to me saying that they had
“found the system was not practicable or reliable enough to work on a one man commercially run flock.”
I hope that the Government will listen to the people who have been trialling such things and do their best to ensure that such unnecessary burdens are not heaped upon our sheep farmers. The nitrate vulnerable zones that have been rolled out across large parts of our county are simply an extra burden, and I suspect that they will not deliver the benefits envisaged in the Government’s well-intentioned policy. They will cause more trouble, difficulty and cost, and they will not deliver the clean water that we want.
The next problem is the Government’s policy. I do not think that farmers feel that the Government are supporting them, and there is no finer example of that than the cider producers in my constituency. Bulmers has already closed its bottling plant with the loss of 54 jobs, and, in the Budget in March 2008, the Government increased duties on bottled cider by 9 per cent. In last November’s pre-Budget report, they increased them by a further 8 per cent. Nobody could argue that we want anything other than a level playing field on which to compete, but when such extra burdens are added to a fine British industry, one can only despair about what is going through the Government’s mind.
Time and again, I raise bovine TB. Hereford beef is the finest in the world—it is the most popular and the best. I am happy to declare an interest in that I have Hereford cattle—I am proud of that. How on earth can we continue to produce the finest beef in the world when only this week I got an e-mail from one of my farming constituents, who has the oldest herd of Hereford cattle in the world, saying that he had 150 cows taken away because of TB? We have the highest badger concentration—nearly four per square kilometre. Those badgers go away and die in agony in their setts. The disease starts with ulcers in their bladders and spreads to the other organs of their bodies. We can move on from the debate about the £100 million of taxpayers’ money that is being spent on the TB strategy that is not working, but the animal welfare implications of the suffering of those badgers is unacceptable, and the Government’s refusal to do anything about it is simply wrong.
I call on the Under-Secretary to listen carefully to my hon. Friends’ comments. We must stop importing cruel practices and stop badgers’ unnecessary suffering. We must stop misinforming the public about what they buy and start helping consumers to help our farmers. Most important, we must use the Government’s purchasing power to ensure that our troops, our schools and our hospitals get the finest food in the world—that means that it has got to be British and say so on the label.
Last November, the Minister, who is unfortunately not in her place, presented the David Black memorial award at the British Pig Executive breakfast on the Terrace, where some hon. Members were present. It went to Ian Campbell for his distinguished service to the pig industry.
In November 2006, the award was presented to my constituent, Philip Richardson, a distinguished farmer, who has made a big contribution to the pig industry over many years—some hon. Members know about that contribution. A few months ago, I was shocked to hear on “Farming Today” at 5.45 am the sound of Mr. Richardson’s voice as he declared that he was leaving the pig sector.
My constituent’s farm had 350 breeding sows. Some hon. Members know that a breeding sow produces, on average, a couple of litters a year of 10 progeny each. The 350 breeding sows therefore produced some 7,000 progeny a year. That puts into perspective the problems that pig farmers face when they lose £20 per animal. That does not sound like an enormous amount of money to lose, but when it is multiplied by the number of piglets produced, it suddenly becomes a six-figure sum. I was shocked to hear my constituent’s comments because he was one of the first farmers I met when I became Member of Parliament for South Norfolk and he has made an enormous contribution to the industry, as recognised by the award that the Minister’s predecessor, Lord Rooker, presented to him only two years ago.
That is only one indication of what has happened in the industry in the past 10 years, during which we have not had the protection—perhaps “protection” is the wrong word and I should say that we have not given consumers the information that compulsory country of origin labelling would provide. I believe that such labelling would have resulted in a greater market share for British producers. The Minister said that the use of the Union flag is known to be a successful marketing device.
I was pleased that, at the Oxford farming conference in January, the Secretary of State said:
“Under current European regulations, a product’s country of origin is the place where it underwent its last significant process. But this can hide where it really came from.
A pork pie made in Britain from Danish pork can legitimately be labelled as a British pork pie. That’s a nonsense, and it needs to change.”
That sounded remarkably familiar. Indeed, it could have been lifted from a speech that my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) made many years ago when he introduced a private Member’s Bill on the subject. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), I tried to introduce a Bill—most recently, last October and before that, in 2004—along the same lines. I welcome the fact that the Government are now on the same page in recognising that labelling is important and that it contributes to better consumer information. However, I cannot understand their reluctance to take on—or at least argue the case with—the Commission more forcefully than they have done.
It is important to nail one thing clearly. It is logically impossible to suppose that providing greater transparency to consumers in a given market could, in itself, favour one product over another. It would not do that; what it would do is improve the operation of the market. Personally, I hope that that market improvement would occur through more consumers, knowing the accurate origins of the food, choosing to buy British-produced food. I make no bones about that; indeed, it is one of the reasons why I would like clearer food labelling.
However, clearer food labelling might not have that result. There might be people who wish to buy Italian salami or French bread. In the days of apartheid, people avoided, for perhaps good reasons, buying South African apples or oranges, which were clearly labelled. They avoided buying them because they wanted to express a consumer choice, and they were entitled to do that. Just after the Berlin wall came down, there were people—I was one of them—who sought out eastern European gherkins to try to support our brothers and sisters in Poland. Having rather let them down in the second world war and left them behind the iron curtain for 50 years, we needed to do what we could to support their growing markets. I made a conscious decision to seek out Polish products in the early ’90s. The point is that consumers ought to have a choice.
The Government’s voluntary approach has not succeeded and it is not going to succeed. I was talking to a DEFRA official recently who seemed to wallow in his powerlessness. He said, “Oh, it’s occupied ground, there’s nothing we can do.” I say to the Minister—she is not in her place now, but I hope that she reads this debate afterwards—that if she cannot get the right advice, she needs to get new advice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury said, it is notoriously true—of both lawyers and economists—that if someone cannot get the advice that they want, they should find a new lawyer. That is what the Government did over the Iraq war, so why can they not do it over food labelling? They should find the right advice, get in the lead and push hard in the European Commission.
There is now much more support for such moves in Europe than there was. I was over in Brussels with the chairman of the British Pig Executive just last June, meeting a German Christian Democrat MEP who was interested in exactly that issue and who was pushing for compulsory labelling of country of origin in the European Parliament. Things have moved on, but the Government need to push much harder than they are currently prepared to.
I shall be brief, because other hon. Members wish to get in on this debate.
I am glad that we have heard a little in the most recent contributions about the wider issues of self-sufficiency in the industry. The hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) referred to the bovine TB crisis. Only last night, very late on, I received a message that one of the farmers in my constituency was facing repossession. The blame for the problems that he has experienced, which are also obviously connected with other financial issues, can be laid at the door of the bovine TB crisis and the Government’s inaction. Fortunately, I heard this morning that, following the small contribution that I was able to make and, I am sure, the excellent representation that he received, a deal was struck and that farmer is able to continue on his farm. However, many farmers throughout the country face great difficulties, so I was pleased that the hon. Gentleman raised the issue. I also echo his comments about the Government needing to tackle the problem and act on the recommendations of the report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, of which I am pleased to be a member.
I want briefly to address the wider issues of labelling. Indeed, I was grateful when I heard yesterday that labelling would be the topic of debate this evening. Along with colleagues in the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency, the Government need to address issues connected with the nutritional information with which people are provided. I should probably put on record the fact that I chair the all-party group on cheese—indeed, there are other members of the group in the Chamber this evening.
We have talked about the diary industry and livestock farmers, and the problems that they face, and we are moving down the path towards the traffic-light labelling system, which has some perverse effects in indicating to the consumer how they can make healthy choices about what they eat. For example, a product such as cheese—a product that has been produced for thousands of years in western Europe; a product that has been not only a core part of our diet through all sorts of experiences, but a part of our culture; a product that is rich in protein and high in calcium, which are vital, particularly to women, who may suffer from osteoporosis later in life—can be ruled out by having red lights all over it, owing to its fat and salt content, yet those red lights are based purely on comparing 100 g of cheese with all sorts of other products.
I am indebted to the Food and Drink Federation for its work on this issue in promoting the alternative of the GDA—guideline daily amounts—scheme. That labelling takes a little reading, but it is far clearer to the consumer and far better in the quality of information it provides.
Of course, one can actually get the right solution by completely ignoring the stubborn FSA approach—the traffic light wheel—and going for something like McCain oven chips, because that company has demonstrated that by putting GDA amounts on labels with some colour coding, it is possible to get readable and correct information so that, rather than stigmatising suitable foods, people get a good diet.
I would appreciate hearing my hon. Friend’s comments on Ofcom, which uses the 100 g criteria in deciding what products can be advertised to children. Surely cheese is a wonderful product for children as they are growing up and need their calcium and protein.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. In fact, Ofcom is using the guidelines presented by other Government agencies. What it is seeking to do—many hon. Members suggest that it is a good thing—is to restrict advertising of junk food for children, but it is ridiculous when it is absolutely fine to advertise diet fizzy drinks, but not a product like cheese.
I shall not prolong my contribution, as other hon. Members wish to speak. I hope that the Government will look more generally at labelling. In his excellent contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) talked about environmental concerns. We have heard a great deal about provenance and origin, which are called for in the Conservative motion, and I hope that the Government will urgently revisit the issue of nutritional information provided to consumers.
Finally, I hope that we will have a debate in this country about the positive contribution that food makes to our national life and culture. We should not constantly reduce the issue to a matter of scientific information, bean counting and number crunching. Food makes a far wider contribution to our heritage and culture, which we should be celebrating. The Times reported just before Christmas that the French Government are funding research into what makes a good meal and what contribution that makes to the national life. We should do the same in this country and speak far more about the positive contribution that the food industry and food generally make, rather than continually sending out a message of “Thou shalt not” about the foods that people should eat.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) has asserted with absolute confidence that the finest beef in the world comes from his constituency. I am pleased to assert with similar confidence that the finest lamb in the world comes from my constituency. Generations of farming families in Clwyd, West have applied their hard work and expertise to creating a unique, high-quality product. It is therefore entirely understandable that those farmers should feel incensed that the laws of this land are so haphazard that they allow meat products from other parts of the world to be described quite legitimately as having been produced in Wales or in the UK when the only acquaintance of such meat with these shores is that the animal has been brought here for slaughter and processed.
That is, in a very real sense, theft. It is the theft of the good will built up by generations of British farmers in producing a high-quality product that people want to buy. They want to buy it because it tastes better, because they know that it has been produced in clean conditions without undue suffering to the animal, and has not been stuffed full of growth hormones and antibiotics. They also know that it has been produced reasonably locally and is not contributing to excessive carbon emissions by being flown half way across the world. Under present arrangements, however, those consumers are being cheated. The label says one thing, but the truth may be entirely different. Under the present arrangements, the consumer does not have a clue about the true origins of the meat being put on his plate. That, on any analysis, is an outrageous state of affairs.
The Government acknowledge in their amendment that
“clear and unambiguous labelling stating the country of origin of the major ingredients for meat and meat products would level the playing field for British farmers and enable British consumers to show a preference for food which is produced to high standards of animal welfare”.
However, expressing that pious belief does nothing to improve the current regrettable state of affairs.
The Government say that it is to the benefit of consumers if supermarkets and retailers comply with the FSA guidance on country of origin labelling, but the difficulty is that the guidance is just that—guidance. It is not mandatory, and the preamble makes it clear that compliance with the advice on best practice is not required by law.
In any event, the guidance notes are widely ignored by retailers. For example, they suggest that
“to describe a rabbit pie that is made in the UK from imported rabbit as ‘Produced in the UK’ would not be best practice.”
However, typical of the supermarket response to the guidance is that of Tesco, which was quoted in The Independent on 30 January 2009 and said that
“‘produced in the UK’… will be in small writing on the back of the pack and is intended only to indicate where the food has been produced. It is not used in a way that suggests any of the ingredients are British and is not used to market the food as a ‘British’ product.”
Well, clearly it is.
The current state of affairs is unsustainable. It is nothing short of a disgrace that supermarkets and processors are at liberty to plaster food products with Union flags or Welsh dragons and say that they are produced in the UK or in Wales when they are not British and could not, even on the most charitable interpretation of either adjective, be described as such.
The Opposition motion certainly should be supported. Proper food labelling is urgently needed and long overdue. I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House who have expressed sympathy with the motion to vote for it. I have no doubt that we will be applauded by the consumer and the food producer alike.
I declare an interest as a keeper of rare-breed pigs. I have four minutes to cover pigs, pork and bacon.
I am very proud indeed of the animal welfare standards in the UK, but the rest of the EU seems to be capitalising on our good nature. Rightly or wrongly, most of our constituents believe that their Government observe and gold-plate EU directives that the rest of the EU pays lip service to. That impression, I am afraid, is borne out by the sad story of the British pig industry.
What on earth did the Government think would happen when, in 1999, they changed pig welfare standards unilaterally, without the possibility of any form of import control, so that cheap meat from pigs kept in lousy conditions would flood the UK market and trash indigenous mid to low-end production? The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has visited some pretty dreadful things on farmers these past few years, but as an exercise in sheer stupidity that takes the biscuit. The result has been that we have simply exported cheap, cruel meat production to the continent.
Today, we have heard a lot about the misdeeds of supermarkets. I was in a supermarket in my constituency at the weekend. A big banner said, “We only sell British Pork”. Many would think that that included bacon, but the sainted Jamie Oliver has alerted us to the sharp practices of our supermarkets. And lo, what do we find, but that that particular supermarket is peddling a large quantity of Danish bacon?
As Jamie told the Health Committee recently:
“I think labelling in Great Britain is a disgrace. Categorically, we are run by the EU on labelling.”
He is absolutely right. We find on the front of packs “Sourced in the UK”, yet on the back—in the tiniest font, illegible to many of our constituents, or at least to those who do not have 20:20 vision—we find that the product is grown anywhere but the UK.
The commercially obliging badge “Produced in the UK” is admissible under World Trade Organisation rules, EU law and the labelling regulations if the very last stage in the food processing took place here, even if the ingredients on which it is based were largely produced abroad.
A picture paints a thousand words. Idyllic rural scenes on packets of meat scream “Made in Britain”. That does not happen by chance, for the supermarket marketing men are well versed in human psychology. Flip the pack over and if people have good eyesight, they will see that the meat is extremely well travelled.
My own favourite is something that its retailer is pleased to call Wiltshire cured bacon. There is a way to cure bacon in the Wiltshire manner. I found it in Mrs. Beeton’s cook book at the weekend, and I suspect that the supermarket in question found it there too. I have no way of telling how true to the Wiltshire curing method that bacon is, but that is irrelevant. The purpose of marketing Wiltshire cured bacon is to suggest to the customer that the product is British and therefore trustworthy. Look at the small print and we see that the product is from elsewhere in the EU.
Last month, the Secretary of State stamped his foot and told supermarkets to play fair. He said that they were harming the Government’s attempts to get people to buy British food, but this Minister’s Government have presided over all this. They have exported our one-time poor animal welfare standards to the continent and have trashed the British pork industry in the process. She may agree with Jamie Oliver that that is a disgrace, but if that is so, it is a disgrace that this Government have presided over.
Let me begin by reminding the House of my interests, as declared in the Register of Members’ Interests.
Opposition Members are fortunate in that we shadow a team of Ministers who are all, individually, very nice and charming. They may not say the same about us, but that is by the by. That charm, however, cannot disguise their ineffectiveness in dealing with some of our crucial issues. We called this debate with the aim of focusing on just one of the many issues that face agriculture at present, although we do not suggest that it provides the sole answer to the problems of farming.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) mentioned food security and the need for it to be debated. I remind him that we had such a debate last summer, called by the Opposition, in Opposition time. I do not recall the last occasion on which the Government arranged any debate on agriculture in Government time, and I have to say that the same goes for the Liberal Democrats.
Since the 2003 reform of the common agricultural policy, Ministers rightly no longer have the ability, effectively, to fix farm-gate prices, although the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) apparently regrets that. If the Government really want to promote agriculture in this country, they must use other methods, one of which is to make the market work. If we expect farmers to operate in the free market—and I think most Members believe that that is the right way forward—it is incumbent on Government to make the market work effectively, and one of the key factors in that is ensuring that the consumer is properly informed and able to make a free choice.
I was astonished by the speech of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. Although he was keen to quote people such as Adam Smith, it seemed to me that he had no understanding of the way in which a market truly operates. According to the press release that he issued today, my party is seen as the party of markets, yet now we seek to regulate. We have never suggested that there is no need for any regulation at all. On the contrary, there is a need for regulation when the market fails, and this is a clear example of the market failing.
No, I will not.
That is why we have proposed a Bill to deal with the problem. That is why we support the proposals of the Competition Commission on supermarkets, why we supported the abandoned merger of two milk groups, and why we want all public procurement to specify British standards. We want regulation only where it is necessary, but, as our motion says, in the instance of food labelling the market has failed, and regulation is therefore necessary.
The Minister referred to her constant meetings. The issue of the Jamie Oliver programme has cropped up several times, and she rightly mentioned our participation in it. The recording took place on 3 November, only a few days after the Minister had taken office. She could therefore be forgiven for not having all the answers that I, and others, wanted at the time. That was over four months ago, however, and we still have no answers.
What was disappointing about the Minister’s speech was that, although she was critical of our proposal for a statutory approach, she was not able to identify the right way forward. Four months since that recording, when she was exposed to a deceit which she recognised and called a disgrace, we have seen nothing. If our proposal is too broad, and the Minister would rather limit Government action to pigmeat, that is a start, but let her take the proposal to the Commission. If 10 per cent. is too low a threshold for the proportion of ingredients, let the Government ramp it up to 20 or 30 per cent., but let them take it to the Commission. The point is that they have not done that.
It is more than 10 years since the present Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), proclaimed, as Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, that he had secured a voluntary agreement. He then talked out my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien). Although the Minister may have been in office in this Department for only a few months, for most of the past 12 years she has been a member of this Government. She cannot deny the Government’s failure to address the issue for all that time.
I want also to touch on some of the comments made by Members. The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) made a tremendously thoughtful speech, much of which I agree and sympathise with. I do not go all the way with him, however. He is a strong supporter of the organic movement, and it has a great part to play, but what he did not do—I would welcome a debate on this on another occasion—is address the fundamental dilemma that organic production has lower yields than conventional systems. If we are worried about food security and total production, that crucial dilemma must be dealt with.
The hon. Gentleman also rightly referred to the abuse of words such as “fresh”, “natural” and “pure”. I am reminded of the recent Cardhu whisky case involving the difference between pure malt and single malt whisky, which eventually had to be resolved by legislation. There is clearly room for a lot more work there.
My hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury and for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), both former promoters of similar legislation, made clear their understandably intense anger that the Government have not taken the matter forward. My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk referred to the operation of the market and the need for the Government to push much harder in Europe.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) put forward a number of other issues, including tuberculosis, regulations and the cider tax, all of which need to be addressed. The TB issue was also referred to by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson).
Finally, my hon. Friends the Members for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) and for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) again emphasised the importance of local food and proper labelling, and my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury made a pertinent comment about the export of cruel and lower standards to other countries if we operate ahead of others.
Much has also been said about food security, and I hope the Minister who responds to the debate will answer some fundamental questions. The Secretary of State has been in post for more than one and a half years, yet all that seems to have changed is the rhetoric. His predecessor, the current Foreign Secretary—presumably until the present Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs gets promoted, as seems to be the fashion in this Government—said in this House that food security was achieved by importing from many different countries. That was met with laughter and astonishment. We have had new rhetoric from the current Secretary of State, at the Oxford farming conference and last week before the National Farmers Union, that he wants to increase domestic production—no ifs, no buts. That is what he said.
What are we to make, however, of DEFRA’s website? We find pages dedicated to further reform of the common agricultural policy and to the document published in December 2005, “A Vision for the Common Agricultural Policy”, which was signed off by the then Chancellor, now Prime Minister, and the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, now the Minister for Housing. That document is still published on DEFRA’s website as the Government’s vision for the CAP, and I quote, as I have before in debates in this House, the following statement:
“domestic production is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for food security.”
Nobody pretends it is sufficient, but not necessary? Who do we believe: the Secretary of State with his new rhetoric or the Prime Minister himself?
The Secretary of State’s argument is to increase domestic production, no ifs, no buts, as long as the consumer wants it and it is environmentally sustainable. We support that. Who in their right mind would not support it? However, the Secretary of State left out in his proclamations of the last couple of weeks a number of other ifs and buts: “If you can comply with all the regulatory burden; if you can afford the extra storage to comply within the nitrate vulnerable zone regulations; if you can find time to do any farming after you have filled in all the Government forms.” There are also a few more buts: “But the Government won’t help you to combat TB; but they will charge you for disease control; but you still won’t get your money when other countries do; but we will demand repayment if we overpay you—you’ll pay up at once; but we won’t demand British standards for public-procured food; but you will have to face increased integrated pollution prevention and control or IPPC, you will have to face electronic identification or EID, and you will have to face the availability of pesticides.”
There are a lot more buts that the Secretary of State left out, one of which is that we are at the butt end of this Government. They are content to remain in office until the very last moment, but we have learned from this debate that they are prepared to let farmers and consumers suffer while they twiddle their thumbs. The final but is that it is time for the Government to butt out.
I thank the House for a generally balanced and interesting debate. Once again, I welcome the Opposition spokesmen—with one exception—to their new roles. Comment was made that this Front-Bench team was charming. I was going to begin my remarks by saying that the Opposition Front Benchers were charming and a little disarming, although those last comments were not.
The debate has covered an issue that is of concern not only to all involved in the food sector, but to consumers in this country. Rightly, food and how it is produced has never been so high on the public agenda. Why is that? It is because the food market is changing rapidly, and people want and rightly demand healthy, nutritious products produced with a low environmental impact, from sustainable sources and with high standards of animal welfare, clear provenance and environmentally sound distribution. Many of those factors have been raised in this debate. We must also be cognisant of the fact that people also want their food to be convenient and good value. That is a challenge, but for those across the supply chain it is also a unique opportunity. We want to support producers, farmers and everyone in the supply chain to take advantage of this opportunity. That is the only way in which we will build a healthy, thriving agricultural sector.
Opposition Members provided some interesting examples of where they feel that labelling has gone wrong—indeed, there was almost product placement of Marks and Sparks, Birds Eye, and the Co-op and the farmers market in Arundel, which I know we shall all be visiting—but I think that we all agree on the main principle: that we should do all that we can to help British consumers make an informed choice about what they buy and to buy British and support British farmers by choice.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) made a speech that was very thoughtful in places, but he seemed to be urging us to go back to the sixties a bit, with price fixing at farm gates. His contribution was well-meaning and thoughtful, but consumers will take note and will probably panic at the idea of a Lib Dem Minister pricing the pork off the dinner table in times of economic downturn. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), who I believe is in his place, in an intervention urged him to think again, but in another re-run of decades ago suggested that the solution was getting out of Europe. Both approaches—turning our back on Europe or turning our back on the hard-pressed consumer—are a retreat from reality.
The hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) suggested that when Labour came to power we not only had an antipathy towards rural areas, but we actually despised them. That would come as a surprise to the chair of my local farmers union. In 1997—I know that the hon. Gentleman arrived in this place two years later—there were 120 Labour MPs representing rural seats, all advocating hard on behalf of their constituents. He also urged us to show leadership. Is that leadership to get out of Europe or into isolation in Europe? Which would be the better for farmers and which would be the better for consumers?
The hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), with whom I have regularly debated various issues in different roles, was very angry. I wondered what my right hon. Friend the Minister had done to wind him up, because he is not normally so angry. We were urged to show determination, and I agree that we need to show determination, as this is a real issue. The hon. Gentleman also spoke up for Hereford beef, which is indeed world class. Together with Welsh Black beef and others, it is recognised for its quality and how it is produced.
The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) raised valid concerns about the pig industry. He made some thoughtful comments, but in an apparent Freudian slip he said that it has not had the “protection”. He instantly corrected himself, saying that that was not the right word, and he was right. I hope that the House agrees that the last thing that would be in the interests of our farmers, producers, retailers and consumers would be to withdraw into some sort of protectionist mentality. The hon. Gentleman insisted that we will not argue the case with the Commissioner—[Interruption.] We will argue the case with the Commissioner, but let us do so on a case with which we have a scintilla of possibility of success, as opposed to the wording of the Conservative motion.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) is the chair of the all-party cheese group. I would have dearly loved to have recommended to him my father-in-law’s pecorino and ricotta, which were lovingly made from sheep’s milk on a farm nestling in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons, but it is unfortunately now out of production, and I do not have to declare an interest. The hon. Gentleman made some thoughtful and useful comments on nutritional information that enriched the debate that we have had this evening.
The hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) paid tribute to the lamb from his constituency. He knows that Welsh lamb as a brand—like Hereford and others—has succeeded in overcoming many obstacles by clearly identifying its origin as a mark of quality and integrity. That is why people search it out. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) spoke with passion about mandatory labelling, but the Opposition’s proposal is unworkable.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) rightly reminded the House of the importance of food security, which can often get lost in technical debate, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson), in an intelligent and cogent analysis of the issue from the common-sense perspective of the consumer. His speech was wide ranging: he managed to combine the car industry and the Cumberland sausage—I hesitate to say it, but they are two good examples of British bangers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South argued for a mandatory system to counter the exploitation of labelling and the consumer. There are several ways to do that. We can do it through working with the EU, as we are doing. We can do it by working with producers and the food chain in the UK, as we are doing. We can also explore what else can be done on mandating, but not as in the proposal in the Opposition motion, which would be bound to fail. The question for the Opposition is whether they want us to ignore the ways in which we can make progress now—in Europe and with British retailers and farmers. The problem is that sitting here as legislators, they see legislation and regulation as the only answer. It is the classic issue of a workman who has only a hammer in his toolbox, so everything looks like a nail. We need to use all the tools at our disposal.
As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has made clear, we need to help people to buy British if they wish and if they choose. For the past 10 years, the Government have been at the forefront of helping consumers to make informed choices. We have established the Food Standards Agency, we have brought into being the traffic light system and we have set out tough guidelines on country of origin labelling—
claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).
Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.
Question agreed to.
Question put accordingly (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question.
The House proceeded to a Division.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added.
Question agreed to.
The Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (Standing Order No. 31(2)).
That this House considers that British consumers should have the information that they need in order to make the choices they want when they buy their food; notes that the European Commission has rejected a recent proposal from the Irish Government for national mandatory country of origin labelling for meat and meat products; believes that clear and unambiguous labelling stating the country of origin of the major ingredients for meat and meat products would level the playing field for British farmers and enable British consumers to show a preference for food which is produced to high standards of animal welfare, health and safety and environmental protection; agrees that where supermarkets and retailers comply with the Food Standards Agency’s guidance on country of origin labelling that this is to the benefit of their consumers; and further believes that the best way to back British consumers and British producers is to support the Government’s calls for tougher and clearer country of origin labelling across Europe.