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Food Labelling Regulations (Amendment)

Volume 489: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2009

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Food Labelling Regulations 1996 to provide for information about the country of origin of food to be made available to consumers; and for connected purposes.

Many Members from across the House have attempted to improve the law on food labelling, including my hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) and for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), and the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth). This is my third attempt, and I keep going because there is widespread support for the idea that consumers should have clearer, more accurate and more honest information about the food that they buy.

My Bill has the support of Members across the House and is intended to deal with one particularly pernicious problem in relation to food labelling, which is that consumers buying meat and meat products are routinely misled as to the country of origin due to inadequate and even deceptive labelling. The European directive 2000/13/EC relating to the labelling of food makes it clear that

“The prime consideration for any rules on the labelling of foodstuffs should be the need to inform and protect the consumer.”

It goes on to state:

“Detailed labelling…is the most appropriate since it creates fewest obstacles to free trade”,

and that

“The rules on labelling should also prohibit the use of information that would mislead the purchaser”.

The British rules on food labelling are set out in regulation 5 of the Food Labelling Regulations 1996, which were introduced prior to the European directive, but which cover much the same ground. This states that all food to which the regulations apply

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

One could be forgiven for thinking that the law was already quite clear and sufficient. Unfortunately, that is not the case and consumers continue to be misled.

On some foodstuffs no indication is given at all that the product is made with imported meat, such as the label on a Tesco chicken dinner in a range of children’s meals, which simply states “Produced in the UK”, when the chicken actually comes from Thailand. Sometimes a phrase will be used to imply country of origin—for example, the Birds Eye Great British Menu range, which on closer examination turns out to be made with imported meat. Sometimes the label will be deliberately vague, as in the case of Sainsbury’s roast chicken slices, which the label describes as “Produced from Brazilian or British Chicken”.

At present producers of imported meat can lawfully use the Union flag on packaging to imply that the product is British when it is not, and they do so. Marks and Spencer has been selling a corned beef sandwich as part of its “nation’s favourites” range with a Union flag that dominates the whole of the front of the label. In small letters on the back is the information that the beef comes from Brazil. To its credit, Marks and Spencer has now recognised that customers may have been misled and is taking steps to repackage the product. That still raises the question why Marks and Spencer used the Union flag in the first place. There is a widespread problem. Consumers are being misled.

The aim of the European directive—to ensure that the rules prohibit the use of information that would mislead the purchaser—is not being met. The aim of the UK’s own food labelling regulations, which call for place of origin labelling if failure to provide this might mislead a purchaser, is not being met. There is clear evidence that consumers want more information, and indeed consumers have a right to know. An ICM poll for the honest food campaign showed that 87 per cent. of consumers in the survey believe the Government should ensure that the country of origin is clearly shown on food products, and 89 per cent. believe that a product such as sausages or bacon labelled as “British” or “Produced in the UK” should mean that the sausages or bacon are from an animal reared in Britain.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said in January:

“A pork pie made in Britain from Danish pork can legitimately be labelled as a British pork pie.”

He added:

“That’s a nonsense, and it needs to change.”

I agree, as does the Minister with responsibility for farming, the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), whom I am delighted to see in her place, and who is going down very well with farmers in my constituency. She recently appeared on the excellent programme on Channel 4, “Jamie Saves Our Bacon”, and told Jamie Oliver that misleading labelling was “a disgrace”, and I agree.

The right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), was an Agriculture Minister 10 years ago, and I am delighted to see him, too, in his place. He told the House in 1999:

“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. 336, c. 1126.]

There is long-standing cross-party support for my Bill.

On 31 October last year, just two days after my last Food Labelling Bill, the Food Standards Agency updated its food labelling guidance to include advice on country of origin labelling, which is welcome. The FSA acknowledges that

“many consumers see the place of origin as an important contributor to a product’s identity, particularly for meat”.

However, the FSA best practice guidance is not mandatory and the FSA merely describes its guidance as

“some suggestions that businesses may wish to consider”.

Well, they may, or they may not, but it is clear that the new guidance has not prevented the abuses that I described a moment ago, which were found in the shops just last month. The FSA guidance recommends that Norwegian salmon smoked in Scotland should not be called “Scottish smoked salmon”, but that is not compulsory and the danger remains that consumers will be misled.

Country of origin labelling will also benefit food safety. Retailers did their best to withdraw Irish pork products during December’s dioxin scare, but packaging for Irish pork processed anywhere in the UK does not have to state “made with Irish pork”, and it could still have been bought by unwary shoppers. Clear, mandatory country of origin food labelling would have stopped that happening.

There is no shortage of agreement that there is a problem; the question is what we do about it. My conclusion is that the time has come for honest food labelling to be made compulsory. Some people say that legislation on country of origin labelling would amount to a restriction on free trade, but that is simply to misunderstand what consumer choice is all about. It is very hard to see how providing consumers with clear and unambiguous information about where their food comes from could possibly be construed as protectionist.

More fully informed consumers do not protect particular market participants or hinder the operation of a marketplace—they make it work better. Some consumers wish precisely to make choices based on the origins of food. During the apartheid era, many people, finding apartheid abhorrent, understandably wished to avoid buying fruit from South Africa. Nowadays, people wish to know the origins of food to support, through their spending choices, high animal welfare standards or low food miles, for example.

There is widespread support from farmers to chefs to animal welfare bodies for better country of origin labelling. Compassion in World Farming believes that meat and products containing meat should be permitted to be labelled as British only if the animal from which the meat was derived was born, reared and slaughtered in Britain. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has said that transparent labelling is vital in assisting consumers to make informed choices. The honest food campaign is supported by leading chefs such as Clarissa Dickson Wright, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Prue Leith and Rick Stein. My Bill focuses on meat and meat products, because with them lies the biggest problem of consumers being misled. The British Pig Executive has described country of origin labelling as a “key area for improvement”.

There is some compulsory origin labelling already. A note from Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue, an international organisation representing some 80 consumer bodies, made the argument for my Bill rather well when it stated:

“The EU has no mandatory country of origin labelling except for fruit, vegetables, beef, fish, eggs and wine”—

it could have added honey and olive oil to the list. It is time for clear country of origin labelling for all meat. It is simplistic to suggest that consumers will automatically buy British; the key point is that consumers should be able to make an informed choice. Some consumers might want to buy authentic Spanish chorizo or German Wurst because they like the taste. That is their choice.

In conclusion, we have been waiting for years for a workable voluntary scheme for country of origin food labelling. The time has come to accept that honest food labelling requires the force of law. That is what consumers have the right to expect, and that is what my Bill provides. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr. Richard Bacon, Alistair Burt, Keith Hill, Miss Anne McIntosh, Angus Robertson, Mr. James Paice, Mr. Richard Benyon, Mr. David Ruffley, Nick Herbert, Angela Watkinson and Sir Nicholas Winterton present the Bill.

Mr. Richard Bacon accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October and to be printed (Bill 75).