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EU: Food Labelling

Volume 731: debated on Monday 17 October 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they are supporting the new food nutritional labelling regulations approved by the European Parliament on 6 July; and, if so, why.

My Lords, we welcome the new regulation. The UK has led the way in Europe in improving nutritional information for consumers. Access to nutritional information supports consumers in choosing a balanced diet and can help in controlling calorie intake. The regulation meets our main negotiating objectives and will give the UK freedom to maintain and build on existing practice.

My Lords, I am a little astonished by that response. Is my noble friend aware that I have campaigned for many years in your Lordships’ House for clear, uniform food labelling on pre-packaged goods for easy comparison? The FSA produced such labelling, which I understand was approved by all five Select Committees but was rejected by the EU, which has now produced something futile, pathetic and unenforceable, to put it mildly. Does my noble friend agree that it is time for the proverbial worm to turn and to tell the EU that we do not want its version—we prefer our own?

My Lords, I am not sure that I would accept the epithets that my noble friend has applied to this regulation. We have led the way in these negotiations. It is true that it has taken some time but we have come away with most, if not all, of our key objectives met. Nutritional information will now be displayed in a consistent manner on the back of all pre-packed foods, which is a major plus. A voluntary approach has been secured for front-of-pack nutrition labelling and for non-pre-packed foods, including those sold by caterers. It will also be made easier for alcohol companies to include energy information on their products on a voluntary basis. This will give people the information they need to make informed choices about what they eat and drink, which is the whole idea.

My Lords, is that truly the view of the Foods Standards Agency? I understand that we have different policies being developed in England, Scotland and Wales, but without differences being truly ironed out. I also understand that we have three departments—Defra, the Foods Standards Agency and the Department of Health—working at this in England alone. Does the noble Earl not think that there is room for confusion and a lack of cohesion when we do not have better co-operation?

I take the noble Baroness’s point. Obviously, the Government would like to see greater consistency in front-of-pack labelling. We know that, if we can achieve it, that is likely to increase consumer understanding and indeed the way that consumers use the information. Now that the regulation is finalised, we have the opportunity to discuss with all stakeholders the way to achieve that. It is advantageous that there is the flexibility available for us to do that.

My Lords, this country has one of the highest rates of obesity in Europe. France is taxing sugary carbonated drinks and Denmark is taxing fatty foods. Regulation is one thing, but can the Minister confirm that the Government are looking seriously at the potential of such fiscal measures to address this ballooning health problem?

As I hope my noble friend will allow, that is a little bit wide of the Question. I do not have an answer for her in my brief, but I will write to her.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, on her Question but I have to say that I think her target should not be the EU but actually her own Government. If you put “food labelling” into a search engine, you will get hundreds of different versions of how food can be labelled. It feels like we are going backwards because of the flexibility that the Government have sought through the EU regulations. What part have the Government’s relationships with the corporate sector played in this matter, and, indeed, if food labelling is going to become more confusing, will that not count against the drive to have good and well balanced diets?

My Lords, as the noble Baroness will know, there are various points of view from various sectors of industry about what constitutes the best and most helpful form of food labelling. As a matter of fact, that has lain at the heart of the difficulty in reaching agreement in Europe, because there are so many divergent views around this. It is quite true that we do have very strongly held views—not least by the Food Standards Agency—about the value of traffic lights. We have equally strong views, held by certain sectors of industry, on the GDA model. As I said earlier in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, it would be desirable to have consistency, but we are not there yet. We will continue to work at that objective.

My Lords, first, has any research been done on the proportion of the population that actually reads these labels; secondly, are people able to read them; thirdly, do they understand them if they do read them; and, fourthly, what about magnifying glasses?

One advantageous feature of the regulation, my noble friend will be pleased to hear, is provision on the legibility and font size of labels, which I am sure we all welcome. In 2009, the Food Standards Agency commissioned some research to examine which front-of-pack labelling system performed best, and the main finding was that the strongest performing front-of-pack label is one which combines the use of the words “high”, “medium” and “low”, traffic light colours and the percentage of guideline daily amount, in addition to levels of nutrients. That was the same across all socioeconomic groups.