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Food Labelling

Volume 502: debated on Thursday 10 December 2009

This is a very popular question this morning. I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and the Food Standards Agency to ensure that we have tighter, clearer and more accurate origin labelling.

Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer and Waitrose are all backing our honest food campaign to stop imported food, which is often produced under lower welfare standards than our own, from being passed off as British food. Why cannot the Government do more to help British consumers and farmers in that regard?

The Government have been working on this for some time. We welcome the Opposition’s honest food campaign—it would be churlish not to say that it is a good initiative. The Food Standards Agency issued new guidance in 2008. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), started a campaign in October last year with, I believe, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. We are working in Europe to try to ensure that food information regulations are as tight as possible, although they will not come in for perhaps another two or three years. We are supporting supermarkets that are labelling food more clearly, so that consumers can buy with greater confidence.

Does my hon. Friend agree that many of us have been campaigning on this issue for many years? Will he help us on veal, especially? Veal is a very good thing to eat—the animals are incinerated if they are not eaten—but we must ensure that people eat English or British veal, rather than imported veal, which comes from animals that have much poorer lives than our own animals.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who points out that the Government have been working on this for some time. Veal is one of the products whose labelling ought to be clearer under regulations. I hope that he and the whole House are aware that the EU protected food celebration takes place this afternoon at New Covent Garden; we will be launching Cornish sardines as the 40th UK food to achieve that status. I hope that Opposition Front Benchers will join my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and me at the celebration this afternoon, because those products are 40 of the best in Britain and are getting worldwide acclaim because of the protected name status, which we support vigorously.

Does the Minister accept that clear, honest food labelling is important not just for reasons of being straight with consumers, but because accurate information allows consumers to send a clear message to food producers about what they want to buy and what those producers should produce, which could allow his Department to reduce some of the burden of red tape and regulation on food producers?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are encouraging retailers to mark and label countries of origin more clearly. I chaired the latest meeting of the pig meat taskforce earlier this week. We have reached a collective agreement—it ought to be finalised by 1 February—on pig meat, which has suffered because many foreign goods that are imported are claimed to be British bacon or British pork pies. I have no doubt that the agreement and new regulations will be launched on 1 February.

Following my Adjournment debate last week about the labelling of goods from Israeli settlements in the west bank, has the Minister finalised the voluntary guidance that is due to be published for British retailers?

I can advise my hon. Friend, who takes a great interest in the plight of the Palestinian people, as do many of us in the House, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has today laid a written ministerial statement before the House, announcing that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has issued guidance to retailers who wish to respond to consumer demand for greater clarity on the origins of produce from the Palestinian occupied territories. My hon. Friend will be able to obtain that guidance and download it from the DEFRA website.

I spoke yesterday to Peter Thornton, owner of the Cumberland and Westmorland Sausage Co., who like me is appalled that sausages can be processed in this country from imported meat and then labelled as British, even when the animals have been reared under conditions that would be illegal in this country. Does the Minister agree that one of the supermarkets ombudsman’s powers should be to enforce both the honest labelling of food and humane animal welfare standards for imported food to match the excellent standards in British farming?

There is clearly a consensus in the House that country of origin labelling should be tighter. I think that the Liberal Democrat spokesman is trying to tease from me what the supermarkets ombudsman should or should not do when he knows that we have yet to announce the conclusions on the position of an ombudsman. That might very well be one area in which such an ombudsman, were one to come about, would take an interest.

My hon. Friend should recognise not only the importance of country of origin labelling and welfare standards, but the importance of ensuring that when people purchase goods they know how many food miles they have travelled to reach this country, and the importance of recognising the quality of UK farming.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. British farmers are spending more on higher welfare standards and they want to be supported in that by British retailers. We believe that the British consumer wants to support them and that we should ensure that country of origin labelling is clearer, so that British farming gets the support it deserves.

When meat can be imported and then labelled as British, it misleads consumers and lets down our farmers. The Secretary of State says that he wants that practice stamped out. In January he said that he was pressing strongly in Europe, and in June he told this House that he was “pushing in Europe”. The Minister has just repeated that the Government are working in Europe, so why in European Union negotiations this year did the Government oppose mandatory country of origin labelling?

I do not think that that is the case. The hon. Gentleman knows that competency in those matters rests with the European Union. The Italians have already been taken to task for trying to introduce a compulsory labelling system in Italy, and Ireland and Malta have already been told that that is not possible in their countries, either. We are negotiating in Europe to try to get the best deal possible, which, I have to say, is not the same position as that of the Opposition.

I have here the minutes of the European Council’s working party on foodstuffs, dated 31 July. Let me tell the Minister what they record: the Italians, the French and nine other member states supported mandatory country of origin labelling; the UK opposed it. We knew that Ministers had failed to deliver honest labelling, but now we know that they actually argued against it. Is not it a disgrace that, for months, this Government have made cynical promises on food labelling which they have not had the slightest intention of keeping?

This is a complex issue, and the position that the hon. Gentleman describes is not that of the Government. We are doing all we can to get more accurate country of origin labelling, and we are working to ensure that the food information regulations, when they are introduced, are as tight as they possibly can be.