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Food: Labelling

Volume 721: debated on Monday 1 November 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what proposals they have to improve the labelling of British foods in retail stores.

My Lords, the Government have made a commitment to clear and honest food labelling. Through negotiations on the proposed EU food information regulations and national initiatives, the Government are working to improve the accuracy of origin labelling. We are also discussing with the food industry ways that food businesses can provide clearer information on the origin of food and food ingredients, particularly for meat and dairy products.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for his reply, but what irritates me is that when one goes into a supermarket, one sees our luscious British fruits packed in containers identical to others, and similarly priced, so that shoppers very often do not realise that they have bought foreign goods until they get home. This year, British raspberries have been excellent; our plums are in a different league from their foreign cousins; and there is nothing that can be said about British apples except that they are superb. Therefore, can encouragement and guidance to stores be given so that they promote our wonderful British home-grown fruit?

I echo the “Hear, hears!” from around the House and congratulate my noble friend on paying tribute to the UK food industry, in particular to United Kingdom fruit. We are, as I said, trying to facilitate a number of voluntary industry agreements to try to encourage more labelling of food. On this front, we want to pursue—dare I say it?—a stick-and-carrot approach in terms of encouraging greater development. The stick, as it were, is being provided by the EU food information regulations; the carrot will be by food industry voluntary agreements.

Does the Minister agree that one of the major problems with food labelling, especially in supermarkets on tins and packages, is that there is a superfluity of it in very tiny print, which is impossible to read—and that it is impossible there and then, in the supermarket, to distinguish what is important, what is significant, and what is not?

I agree that very often there can be too much information. That, too, is why it is far better to try to pursue a lot of these matters through voluntary agreements, whereby a simpler process can be developed that is of greater use—to, for example, the noble Lord—than something more complicated and more bureaucratic that ends up producing too much information which the noble Lord, and many others, find rather difficult to read.

Are the Government considering using clearer labelling on food that contains nuts, as was recommended by the committee on allergy which I chaired, given the number of cases of anaphylaxis that occur when people are unaware that there is a nut content in food?

My Lords, I understand that work is being undertaken in this area. I also understand that all packets of nuts have a serious health warning on them saying, “Warning—this packet might contain nuts”, which should be of help to noble Lords as well as to others. More seriously, the noble Baroness makes a very important point, as nut allergies are increasingly common and that needs to be addressed. We need to make sure that any food that contains nuts has the appropriate warning on it.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord on the opposition Benches, but I ask the Minister not for an increase in the number of words on packages but simply for words, such as “Boil for five minutes”, to be in big print.

My noble friend always has the best suggestions. I did not say that we should increase the number of words on packages but, rather, that we should make sure that the wording on any package is user-friendly and can be accessed by as many people as possible. That is why we believe that voluntary, rather than compulsory, agreements are often the better way of addressing this issue.

My Lords, given that labelling is the subject of European as well as national decision-making, and given that the Government, like the Opposition, have said that they are in favour of clear labelling and a colour-coded traffic-light system, can the Minister tell me why Conservative MEPs voted not only against such a traffic-light system for Europe but against continuing such a system here in the UK? Should not the Government be consistent in pursuing policies in the interests of Britain and our consumers?

The noble Baroness will be aware that, although I was formerly a Chief Whip in this House, I have no responsibility for Conservative MEPs on the other side of the channel. However, we are continuing to negotiate on the EU food information regulations and will ensure that they are as user-friendly as possible. We will also try to ensure, for example, that it is made quite clear where meat comes from. Therefore, even if, for example, the labelling says that bacon is British when the meat itself comes from Denmark, it will also say that the primary product, the pork, comes from another country—that is, Denmark.

My Lords, can the Minister inform the House how, without compulsory labelling on egg products, consumers do not unwittingly purchase eggs from Spain’s illegal battery cages and undermine British producers, who will comply, unlike those in Spain, with the deadline for phasing out battery cages?

My Lords, my noble friend is right to draw attention to the very serious problems relating to animal welfare. They are concerns that have always been at the forefront of our mind in negotiations on the EU food information regulations, and we will certainly take them on board in those continuing negotiations.

Will the noble Lord reflect on his earlier answer that the conduct of MEPs has nothing to do with him, particularly when he reflects that the leader of his party forced Conservative MEPs to leave the Christian Democrat group where they were and join every odd-bod racist, right-wing group, losing all influence that they had in Europe?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a point but it is a pretty silly point. He knows perfectly well that I—and, for that matter, the Prime Minister—have no influence over what they do. In the end, they will decide what they do, and the noble Lord knows that perfectly well.