I am concerned that this debate may herald the end of the British breakfast as we know it. Following a consultation, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has ordered a reduction in the permitted sugar level for jams, jellies and marmalades from 60% to 50%, and the removal of the UK national limit for reduced-sugar jam and of the national provisions for curds and mincemeat. The focus of my opposition is the reduction of the permitted sugar levels for jams, jellies and marmalades, and the removal of the national provisions for curds and mincemeat, which sounds their death knell.
Reducing permitted sugar levels from 60% to 50% would in time destroy the characteristic quality of British jams, jellies and marmalades, and could mislead consumers. We all know what we expect when we go to the supermarket: something of beautiful quality with beautiful colour, with a shelf life of about a year. Traditional jams use cooked fruit, without additives—that is important: the quality of those preserves is determined by the proportions of sugar, fruit, pectin and acid. If the total sugar percentage is reduced, the characteristic gel in the consistency of jams, jellies and marmalades will be lost, and the result will be a homogenised, spreadable sludge, bearing no resemblance to the product we know and enjoy in England as British jam.
Scientists who worked at Long Ashton agricultural research station at the university of Bristol in the 1920s examined the shelf life of jam and other, similar products. The recommendation that they made was for a minimum sugar content of 60%, regardless of the type of fruit used in the recipe. That ensured a good shelf life of at least a year. The 60% level has its origin not in Brussels, as many people think, but in Bristol.
Of course, many people are slightly squeamish about the sort of thing that my grandmother would do—opening jam that had not been used for a couple of months and scooping the top off, where it had fermented slightly. Many people fear greatly, for food safety reasons, that they should not eat jam when there is a bit of fluff on the top, but it is important to understand that jam has a shelf life of a year.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for bringing this important and interesting subject to the House. Can she put the recommendation into context? Many recommendations, good and bad, make their way into the annals of Brussels. Not all of them come out of the sausage machine as legislation. What stage has the idea reached, and does the hon. Lady’s presence here today, outlining its daftness, mean that there is scope to stop it in its tracks?
I rather hope so. That is a question that the Minister will be able to answer. I understand that he signed the order last week, but that the statutory instrument has not been put before Parliament. I hope we can stop it dead in its tracks.
As well as today’s debate, there has been an amazing amount of publicity, including my debates with the Minister this morning on Radio Somerset and Radio Devon—and I have a little list of people who want to talk to me about jam later today. I suspect that all that shows that the public are greatly interested. Sometimes, Departments want to slide regulations through, and those things do not always hit the public. We do not all read the Parliament website and DEFRA press releases. I forgive the Minister that, but it is good that we are having the debate.
The new regulations are part of the Government’s red tape challenge to reduce the regulatory burden on industry—particularly on small and medium-sized businesses. They revise the Jam and Similar Products (England) Regulations 2003, which I regard as completely adequate. Those regulations state that the percentage of soluble solids content for jams, jellies and marmalades must be 60% unless the product is one with reduced sugar, when it has a permitted percentage of between 25% and 50%.
There will be encouragement to make more reduced sugar products, as they might be perceived as more healthy. Some jam manufacturers have urged caution with the percentage. The Department’s impact assessment document for the new regulations cited a potential for increasing the risk of spoilage. Currently, reduced-sugar products, with a percentage of 25% to 50%, may contain chemical additives to ensure that they have a good shelf life, which sugar will give naturally. Potassium sorbate or E202 will be added if we reduce the level of sugar in jam.
At a time when public attention is being directed to the content of food, it seems inadvisable to encourage the unnecessary production of food items with additives and artificial flavours. With a 60% sugar content, the colours of sweet preserves are bright and the fruit is fantastic. A lower percentage produces products with a darker, muddier colour, which may affect consumer confidence in a well known British product. In addition, if the consistency lacks the characteristic gel, and is more like that of a fruit spread or fruit butter, consumer confidence in the properties of jam and other products may be lost. I urge the Minister to consider calling things fruit spread or fruit butter, as happens on the continent.
The 50% permitted sugar level will be lower than the 55% minimum adopted by France and Germany; something similar is done in America as well. The jams produced by those countries have always been different from ours. I spent some of my summer in France, and what they call jam is completely different from what we expect to pluck from the shelves in shops, farm stores and supermarkets.
Historically, continental jams and similar products have been made using completely different methods. The countries I mentioned do not make products whose consistency has the characteristic British gel; to make their jams, fruit and sugar are cooked together or soaked and then cooked together. They are referred to as soft set products, and have a loose, almost pouring consistency.
British jams are traditionally made in two stages. The fruit is cooked, either with or without water, to extract any acid and pectin. Sugar is added to the cooked mixture, dissolved and then boiled to a setting point. Marmalades are made by first cooking the citrus fruit in water and then dissolving sugar into the cooked mixture and boiling it to a set. Jellies are made by cooking fruit in water and straining the cooked mixture through a jelly bag. The residual juice is boiled with sugar to a setting point. We in Britain love our jams, jellies and marmalades to be traditionally made, to produce a natural set.
The consumer was clearly protected by the Jam and Similar Products (England) Regulations 2003. A product labelled as jam had 60% sugar and consequently had the traditional characteristics I have described. Reduced-sugar jams had to be labelled as such, which alerted the consumer to the fact that they were a different product.
There is no appetite for a reduction among some of the high quality manufacturers in England, Scotland and Wales—notably Wilkin and Sons of Tiptree, Mackays, and Wendy Brandon Handmade Preserves; I note that the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who has Tiptree in her constituency, is present for the debate. The regulations have been driven by a small number of small producers to increase their sales of apple-based spreads, which they want to label as jam. They are nothing like traditional British jam—I have tasted them. Given the high acid and pectin properties in cooking apples, it is possible to set the product with less sugar, but that does not apply to all fruits, as the pectin and acid content varies between them.
As a member of the women’s institute of Mark in Somerset, I am curious to know how the National Federation of Women’s Institutes responded to the regulations. Historically, the WI is the best known organisation to give instruction—to its members and the wider public—on the characteristics of sweet preserves. Its publication “On With The Show” lists the criteria for judging those preserves.
I understand that out of the 132 organisations consulted by DEFRA, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes was one of a handful claiming to have received a consultation letter. Sadly, I understand that it declined to respond, but the WI will be left with its rules to consider. How will the new products be judged in competitions and how will preservation judges’ training courses be affected? I can only assume that the WI will leave its rules unchanged, as preserves with the traditional characteristics are the only naturally produced ones with a long shelf life.
Deregulation of the provisions for curds and mincemeat, as listed in the 2003 regulations, would stimulate the creation of other products labelled as curds and mincemeat. In 2003, DEFRA asked the industry whether it wished to retain the national rules for curds and mincemeat, and the overwhelming response was yes. At the time, the industry felt that there was a need to set minimum rules to ensure the quality of the products and to prevent poor quality or inferior substitutes. The 2003 regulations included a minimum sugar content of 65% for curds and mincemeat. Those rules were notified to the European Commission, as required, and there were no objections to the UK’s setting rules in that area. Curds and mincemeat have continued to be UK-specific products.
In spite of that, DEFRA’s impact assessment for the new regulations suggested that the deregulation of curds and mincemeat would cut red tape and free the industry to innovate and/or reformulate, provided that the customer was not being misled. Curds and mincemeat are uniquely British, with their origins firmly established for centuries; they are not part of the culinary culture of other European Union member states.
Curds and mincemeat are made using a small list of specific ingredients. Mincemeat has a history traceable back to the late 17th century, in the period following Cromwell’s two-year ban on Christmas festivities. After his death, and once Christmas had been reinstated as a festival, the mincemeat that we know today was introduced—a product with a quantity of vine fruits, sugar, citrus peel, suet or equivalent fat, and optional alcohol.
Fruit curds, lemon curd in particular, became well known in England in the late 1800s. Recipes with eggs, butter, sugar and fruit were called transparent puddings; the method of storing them in jars became popular in the 19th century. Fruit curds are an emulsion of edible fat, sugar, whole egg or egg yolks—or both—and fruit. The 2003 regulations specify percentages of ingredients for the quantity of fat and eggs for every 1,000 grams of the finished product. The quantity of fruit is sufficient to characterise the finished product.
For mincemeat, the 2003 regulations specify the quantity of vine fruit, suet and citrus peel used for every 1,000 grams. Curds and mincemeat have a soluble dry matter of 65%, unless they are reduced-sugar products. Any product with less than 65% is labelled as a “low sugar substitute”. Deregulation would stimulate the introduction of products materially different from the existing definitions of curds and mincemeat. There is no case for deregulating curds and mincemeat.
I have some particular questions for the Minister. The 2003 regulations were based on scientific research. Is the Minister aware of any published research that supports the new regulations? For producers, there is an attraction in using the words “jam”, “marmalade”, “jelly”, “mincemeat” and “curd”—how can DEFRA be confident that consumers will not be misled when lower-sugar fruit spreads are labelled as jam, despite being very different from traditional jams?
I understand that the Minister has signed the proposals, but the statutory instrument has yet to be laid before Parliament. How can we keep the jam regulations unchanged? Now that the matter has received additional public interest and scrutiny, what should members of the public do to change the Department’s mind? What criteria will the Secretary of State or the Minister be using to review the regulations?
If we really want to have continental jam, we can go to the continent, or we can buy it. So far, I have resisted the temptation to use all the amazing jokes that have come out—
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She has already highlighted the fact that the world’s greatest jams and marmalades are made in my constituency, in Tiptree. There is no doubt that we have the best jams in the world, and we export a lot of them. Does she not agree that the Government should be working with producers with a great international reputation for exporting their jams throughout the world, so that we can increase our profile and market share internationally and outcompete Europe?
I could not agree more. I do not agree with the idea that the new proposals will encourage exports; we will end up exporting, and importing, more gloop, as opposed to having something that we all know well—British jam, jelly, marmalade, curds and mincemeat are completely classic British products. If we want to export them, we need to help people to do so, but we need to keep the quality and the standard of what we see on the British breakfast table.
As I was about to say, the Minister seems to have found himself in a sticky situation, or in a bit of a jam. Jam today, please, but I would like to see jam tomorrow as well.
Thank you, Mr Owen. I also thank the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) for securing the debate, which has indeed gathered a bit of interest. The hon. Lady and I had a dry run of this discussion in the media this morning. I can understand her concerns about some elements of the proposed changes, but I feel that there is a degree of role reversal—as a Conservative who is sceptical about having the EU telling us what to do, I am all up for loosening regulations and letting markets decide, so to hear a Lib Dem taking such a strident position on the issue was surprising.
I come from a family involved in fruit farming. The jam industry is itself important, but having it as an outlet, a market, for the fruit industry is also important. One of the things that I learned, to my cost, while trying to grow strawberries is that a lot of things can go wrong in the fruit industry, whether bad weather, bruising of fruit or pallets of fruit tipping over, so having the jam industry market for some of the damaged fruit is very important. I ought to let the House know that my family’s business, Trevaskis Farm, makes jam for sale in small quantities through the farm shop. I have a little knowledge of the area through that.
To provide the context, the proposed changes to the regulations are part of DEFRA’s contribution to the Government’s red tape challenge initiative. The regulations were one of a number that were identified under the food and hospitality theme that could benefit from improvement and where potential savings could be delivered to businesses. The jam regulations were identified as an area in which we could consider changes that might provide businesses with greater flexibility and less restrictive rules.
One impetus behind the change was a request by some in the industry for the UK to consider taking up an optional derogation in the EU jam directive that permits—but, crucially, does not require—a sugar level lower than 60% to be set, which is something that a number of other member states have already done. The derogation allows member states to set a lower minimum sugar level for jam and similar products.
Organisations such as the Food Processors Association, an organisation that incorporates the United Kingdom Sweet Spreads Association and represents many in the jam industry, were keen for the Government to amend the regulations to ensure that the UK was on a more level footing with other major EU jam manufacturing countries, such as France and Germany.
The clue is in the title, the Sweet Spreads Association, and that is not jam. The Minister should come cooking with me—I do not know what else I can do, but suggest a master class in jam cookery in DEFRA. Let us have a go. Frankly, if people want to call something a fruit or sweet spread, they may, but they should not be calling that stuff jam.
All right. Since that original request, which was for a minimum permitted sugar level of 55%, others have requested that we consider lowering the minimum permitted level even further, to 50%, which would remove the so-called no man’s land that currently exists between sweet spread products, which are supposed to be below 50%, and jam products, which are supposed to be 60% or above.
After considering all the responses, we decided to reduce the minimum permitted sugar level for jam from 60% to 50%, but to retain the national provisions for fruit curds and mincemeat—an issue that the hon. Lady raised later in her speech. That will all be subject to the necessary clearances. The reduction in the minimum permitted sugar level to 50%, however, delivers the greatest flexibility to the industry as a whole, in a way that will not be detrimental to those who are in compliance with the existing regulations and can continue to make their jam as they do now.
The hon. Lady has expressed concerns about the possible impact on British jam, but I believe in the market—the market will dictate what does and does not sell. I mentioned earlier that my own family’s farm business produces small quantities of jam for sale through the farm shop. I took the liberty of talking last night to my mother, who is in charge of making the jams. She said that there has been a trend among consumers over the past 10 to 15 years to seek out products with lower sugar levels. They want products with more fruit and less sugar. We should not resist that, if there is a market demand for such products. They do not have to be the gunge or dreadful products that the hon. Lady mentioned —I assure her that the products sold in our farm shop are very good.
I have been contacted by diabetics and others who require products with a reduced sugar level and that is fine, but they are always accurately labelled on supermarket shelves and in farm shops as reduced-sugar jam. People know what they are buying. But if everything with a minimum sugar level of 50% and above can be called jam, there will be utter confusion about what is really jam and what is a fruit spread or whatever.
I understand that. The sugar content of a fruit spread is supposed to be below 50%, so we are removing that no man’s land between 50% and 60% and allowing products with a sugar content of below 60% but above 50% to be labelled as jam.
My hon. Friend pointed out that the 60:40 sugar-to-fruit ratio was recommended following research at the Long Ashton research station in Bristol in the 1920s. That was a long time ago and since then there have been technical advances and recipe experimentation. In the last few years, our market has included fruit spreads and jam with a sugar level of less than 60% with no increased spoilage reported. The reduction of the minimum requirement to 50% removes the current gap for products that fall into the 50% to 59% category. The flexibility delivered by the change will help to ensure that British jam manufacturers remain competitive because they will have the option to market their jam products with a higher fruit content on a level playing field with other member states.
It is worth reiterating that we are talking about a minimum permitted sugar level. That does not mean that existing manufacturers must work to the new minimum.
I congratulate the Minister on his position. I do not know whether the Prime Minister had the foresight to appoint him knowing that this question about jam was coming his way. He seems perfectly placed to take the matter forward. If the producers of “Celebrity Masterchef” or the “Great British Bake Off” are watching, there may be some invitations coming through to pursue it further.
The Minister said that manufacturers, wherever they are based, in Dorset as well as other places around Britain, may continue to do what they are doing now. Will he confirm that no one in the industry will be affected by the prospect of a change in the regulations and that they may continue to do what they are doing now?
That is the case because these are minimum not maximum requirements. If there were a maximum requirement requiring all jams to have 50% sugar we would be having a totally different discussion. We are discussing minimum requirements and giving the industry flexibility. Those who want to develop products with a lower sugar level that they can market in Europe will be able to do so, and traditional jam manufacturers who want to retain a 60% level, are resistant to any change and do not accept that there have been changes in techniques or recipes may continue as at present and market their products as traditional jam with a premium in the market.
If the minimum level is set at 50%, all the organisations that are making jam with less than 60% sugar will be entitled under the regulations to call their products “jam”, not “reduced-sugar jam” or whatever else they are attempting to make. We need that clarity for the British public’s attachment to jam and what it means. I have bought stuff from supermarket shelves that is like mud—it has lost its colour, it is not the right texture and it is a completely different product. All those products will be entitled to be called jam.
I do not think it is in any company’s interest to market products that, to use my hon. Friend’s words, taste like mud. We must let the market decide. Makers of brands who passionately believe that a quality product must have 60% sugar will carry on with that. Nothing in the change will affect that. If my hon. Friend is right and brands with a lower sugar content will have an inferior product and if customers conclude that, as she suggested, they taste like mud, they will not buy it again. The market for that product will be small. In a free market economy, we should have a light-touch approach to regulation, and that has come out of the Government’s red-tape challenge. The market must decide. If my hon. Friend is right, the market for such products will be small.
Our changes will provide jam businesses with increased flexibility. We are keen to help small businesses that are trying to break into the market, and some exciting new products are coming on to the market based on the unique British Bramley apple. Jams made from it set more easily because of its high pectin content and do not need quite as much sugar. My hon. Friend said that the market for such products is small, but an internet search showed quite a number of products using Bramley apples as part of a mixed jam, such as Bramley and blackcurrant and Bramley and blackberry. There are exciting prospects for them, and there is nothing more British than the Bramley apply. We are almost unique in Europe in having specialist culinary apples rather than just generic apples. This is a good potential market for our excellent Bramley apples.
The regulations will be improved in respect of reduced-sugar jams. Since 2006, when new regulations on nutrition and health claims were introduced, there has been an overlap with the 2003 regulations that specify that a reduced-sugar jam must have a sugar content of between 25% and 50%. In contrast, the nutrition and health claims rules require all products labelled “reduced sugar” to have at least a 30% energy reduction compared with a standard product. To sort out this discrepancy, we are doing away with the specific rules for reduced-sugar jams so that they will need to comply only with the same rules as all other foods. That will provide improved clarity for the industry and consumers, and respondents to our consultation agreed it would be much simpler to work with one set of rules in this area.
We consulted on the proposed changes earlier in 2013 and received some useful contributions. One option that provoked strong opinions was in response to whether the UK’s national provisions for fruit curds and mincemeat—the sort in mince pies—were still useful or whether they could be removed. I can reassure my hon. Friend, who highlighted many concerns, that although she may not agree with our proposals to reduce the minimum sugar content of jam, we have acted on the evidence put to the Department and we will not change the regulations on fruit curds or mincemeat.
The main justifications cited were that curd and mincemeat standards help to maintain the production of these uniquely British products whose origins are firmly established and go back centuries. They are not part of other member states’ culinary culture and UK producers manufacture them to traditional recipes. The current rules reflect those practices.
The standards provide an important yardstick and their removal could result in a reduction in quality and could stimulate the introduction of products that are materially different from our current traditional curds and mincemeat products. So, as a direct result of the cogent arguments put forward in the consultation process, including a response from my hon. Friend’s constituent, Mrs Lloyd, we will retain unchanged the national provisions for fruit curds and mincemeat. That decision is positive and demonstrates the benefit of consultation to help to ensure that the final policy decision is fit for purpose.
At the heart of the matter is a description of what is on the shelf so that people can recognise the sugar content and whether it is really British jam or from elsewhere with a different content. Will the Minister consider a jam kitemark or indication so that people can recognise true jam as defined at present and the different spreads that we may see more of from the continent?
As I said, I am a great believer in the market. Individual jam manufacturers who pride themselves on their brand and who passionately believe that jam must have 60% sugar to be good will be able to market their product as a niche, specialist product. If there is no market for products with less than 60% sugar, it will not develop. It is for the industry voluntarily to come together if they want to and jointly market traditional jams. I welcome this important debate, which has provided exactly the detailed scrutiny that the House should undertake.