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Food Labelling

Volume 623: debated on Tuesday 14 March 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of food labelling.

I draw hon. Members’ attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Accurate food labelling is vital to UK food producers and consumers. It is important in ensuring that there is a fair, functioning market in the sector. It enables products to compete on a fair basis—especially given that imports are often made to lower quality, with poorer animal welfare standards. It allows consumers to make informed choices about how they want to buy, without being misled. As the 2013 horsemeat scandal demonstrated, our labelling regime has an impact on consumers and businesses in every community in the country. Of course it also has a particular impact on farming and food manufacturing businesses and the wider rural economy.

The Minister’s Department calculates that the value of food and farming to the economy is about £108 billion, and the sector employs one in eight members of the total workforce. The strength of British agriculture is essential to maintaining food security and to the conservation, through its vital role in land management, of the countryside and landscapes. A strong farming sector also sustains rural communities, especially in more remote areas where there may be fewer alternative sources of employment. I know that the Government are committed to supporting the agriculture sector, and that support is all the more important as we face the challenges and opportunities of leaving the European Union.

I thank my hon. Friend for obtaining this excellent debate. It is great that we have high standards of animal welfare, but they cost the industry money; does he agree that, as we get new trade deals and leave the European Union, we must be certain to label products securely so that we can stop imports coming in if they do not meet our standards? We should properly label our products; otherwise our farming community and food industry will be seriously disadvantaged.

I entirely agree, and that is exactly why I wanted to have the debate now. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has seen a copy of my speech; but he is right. There will be opportunities and challenges for the food and farming sector in leaving the European Union. Developing a comprehensive and accurate food labelling regime is an indispensable element of that.

I applaud my hon. Friend for obtaining the debate, at just the right moment. Often when we shop online we do not know whether the food is British. Could consideration be given to a button to press when doing an online shop to enable people to choose from just British produce? Surely that would really help us as we leave the EU.

As always, my hon. Friend brings a new dimension to the debate. If I am honest, that is something I had not thought about, but I applaud the idea, which is excellent. I hope that the Minister will take the point on board.

As hon. Members will be aware, the relevant law has mainly been decided by the European Union, so our withdrawal gives us the opportunity to tailor the rules to the needs of the United Kingdom. I firmly believe that withdrawal must not mean going back on the progress made during our EU membership.

I too refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I do not disagree with anything that the hon. Gentleman has put forward, but how are we to motivate consumers, who are driven by price and not always by concerns about the country of origin?

I have some sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says, but I will remind him about a supermarket founded in Yorkshire that has put a levy on its milk and gives that money back to the farmer. The consumers pay slightly more for their milk but know that the extra goes directly back to farmers. I will not name the supermarket, but that item has been its fastest growing product. That shows that when consumers have knowledge, because of proper labelling, they are prepared to buy British.

I commend my hon. Friend on bringing the debate today. I am sure that he will be aware, as I am from the experiences of Suffolk farmers, that far too often some current EU regulations—I say this having voted remain—prohibit the proper marketing of local produce. They make it much more difficult for consumers to know that they are buying genuinely British beef from farms in Great Britain. At the moment, some of the beef they buy could be from overseas.

I entirely agree. My hon. Friend is right that it is crucial to have accurate labelling. That should not only mean country of origin labelling; it should go right down to local and regional labelling.

My hon. Friend is making a typically powerful and timely speech on an important subject. On the same point, does he share my frustration when some supermarkets try to take advantage of consumers’ good will and support for local manufacturers by making up fictitious brands such as “Nightingale Farms”? We consumers make purchases, thinking we are supporting the UK industry, only to discover that it is a fictitious brand.

That is another excellent point in what is indeed an important debate. I entirely agree: this is about making sure that labelling is accurate and fair to the producer and the consumer—so that the latter can make a properly informed choice. As my hon. Friend pointed out, that is not always the case.

I firmly believe that withdrawal from the EU must not mean going back on the progress that we have made.

On the point about mislabelling, there is a big chain in this city and others that sells Angus beef, which I suspect is not Aberdeen Angus, from either Scotland or the rest of the United Kingdom, but mostly south American. I suspect that because it is labelled Angus beef, a lot of people eating it think that it is home-grown Angus beef.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I know exactly the places that he is talking about; I cannot say I have frequented them, but I know where they are and they stand out very well in the capital. What he says is right, and it goes back to the point made earlier. It is a question of consumer choice, but consumers want accurate information—whether online or in restaurants—so that they can make an informed choice about the products they buy.

The three main types of origin label are country of origin, method of production and method of slaughter. In this short debate—I am already running out of time—I intend to concentrate mainly on country of origin labelling, because I feel it is both the category for which accurate labelling is most important and because a British product is already guaranteed to be made to some of the highest standards of quality and animal welfare in the world. While accurate labelling is obviously important for producers, we also know that it matters deeply to consumers. It is therefore only right that labelling is clear and accurate.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs figures from 2016 show that just under 40% of shoppers check food labels for national origin, while separate research suggests that figure rises to 47% for meat products—double the percentage who look at nutritional information. Under EU rules, country of origin labelling is currently mandatory for unprocessed pork, sheep, beef, goat’s meat, shellfish, poultry, most fruit and vegetables, wine, honey and olive oil. That is a fairly recent development for sheep, pigs, goats and poultry, applying only since April 2015.

The bottom line is that the substance of these regulations must be preserved as the bare minimum when we cease to be an EU member state; promoting “brand Britain” through our exports will become all the more important as we move towards the exit door. I also believe that the Government must act to remedy existing problems with these regulations once they have the power to do so independently. As the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee was told last year during its “Farmgate prices” inquiry, EU rules allow for the national origin of meat to be given as the country where the last significant change in production took place and not where the animal spent all of its life. For me, that does not amount to a fair, common-sense definition of national origin.

Published in May last year, the Government’s response to the Committee’s report said that they were

“continuing to press at EU level for mandatory country of origin labelling for staple food products.”

The wide scope of action that that suggests is very welcome.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for initiating this useful and informative debate, and I welcome the case he is making. Should infant formulas be added to the products that he suggests should have country of origin labelling? The ten-minute rule Bill that I presented on marketing of formula said that country of origin labelling might be useful in helping consumers to make an informed choice if it were put on the tins and made clear exactly where the formula came from.

I entirely support that; it is another sensible suggestion of where we should consider country of origin labelling. Parents would look at that in great detail and want to make an informed choice for their children. It goes back to the point that consumers need information so that they can make a detailed, informed choice. On the point I was making, I hope that the efforts Ministers were planning to expend on the EU in that regard will now be channelled into examining the opportunities for the UK on this issue on a similar broad basis. I am sure that the Minister will look at this in detail.

I will focus the rest of my remarks on the difference between fresh meat, which, as I have said, is subject to mandatory country of origin labelling, and the wider range of processed meat products, which are not. That is the most striking example of the regulation needing urgent improvement. It should not always fall to a Yorkshireman to plead for plain-speaking and straightforwardness in this place; I know that the Minister will probably argue that the south-west does an equally good job of speaking straightforwardly—calling a spade a spade. However, the current divergence between country of origin rules for meat and processed meat products is a significant source of unfairness and confusion within the UK meat market.

The lack of mandatory labelling for processed meat products and our own Food Standards Agency guidelines mean that those products can legally be labelled as British or “made in Britain” if they are only processed in this country, even if they are made from non-British meat. It is important to bear it in mind that products not currently covered by mandatory country of origin labelling make up a huge share of total meat consumption, including pies, ready meals, ham, bacon and sausages. Crucially, those products are displayed side by side on supermarket shelves with fresh meat that is subject to mandatory country of origin labelling requirements. A national origin label on two very similar products sitting next to each other can in fact mean very different things, potentially misleading the consumer and disadvantaging both them and British agriculture.

There is a significant number of welcome voluntary schemes that encourage country of origin labelling of processed meat products, such as the Red Tractor label and the voluntary standards agreement agreed by the industry and DEFRA in November 2010, but the fact that they are voluntary obviously limits their effectiveness. The number of different labelling schemes, each with their own standards and applying to some producers but not others, risks confusing consumers and prevents a level playing field on which products can be judged according to one ultimate standard.

Current food standards guidelines suggest that the country of origin of principal meat ingredients should be declared, and that any information provided cannot be misleading. Sadly, that is not sufficient to prevent unclear or inaccurate labelling of processed meat products. For instance, a packet of two gammon steaks from one of our leading supermarkets can be labelled

“produced using pork from the UK”

on the front, while the back of the packet reveals the more complete information in small print—that it was

“produced in the UK using pork from the EU”.

Similarly, a spaghetti bolognese ready meal from another leading supermarket can bear the Scottish flag on the front to indicate that it contains Scottish beef, clearly implying that the meat in the product is 100% of UK origin. However, in small print on the back is the information,

“produced in the UK using Scottish beef and Italian, German and French pork”.

That is all hugely unfair to our producers, who have gone to great efforts to ensure that their produce is of the highest standard, which is rightly demanded in this country, and should not have to see their products labelled as being no different from imports from countries where standards are much lower. For instance, research has suggested that an estimated 70% of pork imports fall below UK standards. The classic example of that is sow stalls, which have been banned in the UK for 10 years but remain common practice in many other countries.

My hon. Friend is making a good point. We are not self-sufficient in food in this country. If we get the labelling aligned correctly, does he think that it would give farmers, like those in my constituency of Taunton Deane in the south-west, more opportunities to produce and sell more?

I think it will allow farmers to compete against imports on a fair pitch, as it were. That is very important, because at the moment I feel it is very skewed by the labelling. Whether in my hon. Friend’s patch, up in Yorkshire or anywhere within the UK, including Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales, British agriculture produces products to some of the highest standards and the highest welfare standards in the world. That is not reflected fairly within food labelling at the moment, and we have to ensure that it is.

It seriously inhibits consumers’ choice if we do not get this right. We know that many consumers wish to buy British meat, in many cases because of the high quality and high animal welfare standards to which it is produced. Research suggests that 74% of people believe it is important that the meat they buy is of UK origin. That strengthens the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane about what such labelling can do for UK agriculture. However, under the current regime, consumers are restricted in their ability to do so.

For meat and processed meat products more broadly, I urge the Minister seriously to consider establishing a clear single UK country of origin standard, with a single country of origin label on the packet meaning that the animal was born, raised and slaughtered in the country and making it clear that the location of the last substantial change to the product is not an adequate description of its origin.

I also believe that the Government should use their new freedom of action outside the EU to proceed with introducing mandatory country of origin labelling for dairy products wherever possible. The Minister has made clear his disagreement with the unwillingness of the European Commission to act on that issue, and I therefore hope that in making this call I am pushing at an open door.

The future prosperity of the food and farming sector and its ability to maintain and enhance its export performance will also depend on the promotion of traditional regional and speciality foods, which is another issue within food labelling. Given the time, I will not go into that, but it is worth putting it on record that that is an important sector within food labelling that we need to focus on.

Finally, I urge the Minister to ensure that the labelling standards I have described are preserved in future trade agreements with the EU and other countries, so that British agriculture is able to thrive in conditions of fair competition, with accurate disclosure of origin information to the consumer. Accurate, honest country of origin labelling in food is of great importance to the success of UK agriculture, the prosperity of rural communities, the rights of consumers and the competitiveness of our products in the world market. I look forward to seeing what measures the Minister can bring forward in this area as the Government develop the first independent UK farming policy for more than 40 years.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing this very important debate. He is known for campaigning on these issues and, as he said, as a straight-talking Yorkshireman. In fact, I shall be visiting Yorkshire this Thursday and look forward to lots of straight talking about the future of agriculture policy.

This is a very important issue. UK consumers spend £200 billion on food, drink and catering services each year. Consumer confidence is key to the integrity of the supply chain, and that is more important in food than in anything else. As my hon. Friend pointed out, existing regulations are largely set out in the food information for consumers regulation, which dates from December 2014. It sets out in quite a bit of detail mandatory labelling requirements for the name of the food, the list of ingredients, ingredients causing potential allergy or intolerance, the quantity of specific ingredients or groups of ingredients, net quantity of the product, the use-by date, any special storage conditions, the name and address of the food business operator, the country of origin, instructions for use where required, alcoholic strength and nutrition declarations. That is a fairly comprehensive set of regulations. The UK helped to shape those regulations at UK level, but when we leave the EU we will take our position again on Codex, which is the UN body that tries to set standards internationally and is increasingly influential in this area.

On leaving the EU, there will be an opportunity to do things differently, to improve things and to introduce clearer labelling in some areas. However, it is also important that we have continuity; we do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. That is why in the first instance the great repeal Bill will put all our existing regulations pertaining to food labelling and all other aspects on a legal footing in UK domestic law. There will then be opportunities over time to revisit things.

While I appreciate that this was not a major focus for my hon. Friend, we are looking at whether we can have some kind of mutual recognition of existing protected food names. That will be important for European countries seeking recognition in the UK as well. We are looking at whether we could use trademark regulations to develop brands in other areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) mentioned Angus beef. There is another issue with Angus beef, which is that it is not always—or indeed, rarely—from a pedigree Angus animal; it is usually from one crossed with a dairy animal. We will have the opportunity, through trademark regulations and other intellectual property law, to develop brands for pedigree native beef breeds, for instance, which we are looking at.

I want to talk predominantly about country of origin labelling, which was the focus of my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer. As he pointed out, since April 2015 country of origin labelling has been required for fresh and frozen meat from pigs, sheep, goats and poultry. It has been required for fresh beef since 2003 and for certain fish products since 2000. As my hon. Friend knows, we have campaigned for the extension of mandatory country of origin labelling to cover some dairy products. The European Commission has always resisted that, arguing that it is too complex for processed products. Our view is that it might not be possible for all dairy products but would certainly be possible for some, such as butter and cheese, where it is relatively easy to identify country of origin. Once we leave the EU, there will be an opportunity to look at strengthening mandatory labelling in that area, if that were the view of the Government of the day.

My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that beef sometimes is not born, raised and slaughtered in the country of origin. My recollection of the regulations—I can double-check this—is that in the case of beef, for the label to state country of origin as UK the animal must be born, reared and slaughtered in the UK. For other meats, the animal must be reared and slaughtered in the UK. It is possible to say “slaughtered in the UK” if the animal is not born and reared here. The regulations cover this issue to some extent for fresh meat.

My hon. Friend also raised important issues about processed meats, which are more complex. A composite product such as a pizza might have vegetables on it from different parts of the country and might use flour from one country, meat from another or, indeed, meat from two countries. It is harder to put country of origin labelling on all processed meats.

There has been a growing tendency for other foods to be labelled voluntarily with their country of origin. For example, the vast majority of lightly processed meat products, such as bacon and sausages, already have country of origin labelling as part of a voluntary scheme, but it gets harder with some of the more complex products. I am always open to strengthening transparency for consumers. If there is a way of going further, beyond the issues we have highlighted previously in the case of dairy, we can look at that.

My hon. Friend mentioned method of production labelling. There are some very good voluntary schemes, such as the RSPCA Assured scheme, which recognises high standards of animal welfare, as well as the British Lion eggs and Red Tractor schemes. We are keen to encourage those further.

I want to touch on a couple of other points. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) raised the issue of slightly dubious farm name brands used by supermarkets. That is a difficult area. While those cannot mislead, there are cases where, for instance, a brand celebrates a product of a particular standard. I have heard some people complain about the Duchy Organic label because the products are not always produced on Duchy farms; in fact, they rarely are. It nevertheless is an important organic standard that has recognition. This is a difficult area. Labels are not allowed to mislead people, but I accept that some labelling is in a slightly grey area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) talked about online shopping. We are discussing that with the National Farmers Union; it may be one way we can avoid voluntary principles. We have had a very good debate, and I will take on board these points.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.