Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220 - 239)



Ms Keeble

  220.  There are three sort of points in this question, primarily for Dr Rayner. I do not know if you were in the room when I asked about turkey burgers?
  (Dr Rayner)  Yes.

  221.  I would be interested to know what you think the Food Standards Agency should do about it—in particular, would it need extra powers? Secondly, at what stage, or what level of certainty, would you expect the FSA to require before acting? For example, you mentioned the implications of cancer, and we had the red meat and cancer incident not so very long ago. What level of proof do you think the FSA should need before it takes action and issues warnings, bearing in mind that if the FSA gets it wrong it has profound implications for the industry and, also, implications for the FSA's own credibility; if it mishandles one of these issues it will be completely blown out of the water—not to mention what will happen to the Government. Thirdly, you made an interesting aside there when you were asked about the Health Education Authority and you said that it is not powerful enough. One of the things I am concerned about is that the FSA is more powerful, and I wonder what your views are on that, and what powers you think it might need. So one is the turkey burgers and one is about the level of proof—because you, or the Alliance, would be one of the first critics if the FSA does not do anything about what you perceive to be a nutritional issue that affects people's health. The third thing is about powers.
  (Dr Rayner)  Turkey burgers first. Food labelling regulation, food labelling codes of practice and food labelling law is in a mess in the United Kingdom. Largely, that is because it is now mostly under the control of Brussels in terms of legislation, so, effectively, the United Kingdom Government has not much power left to produce new laws on food labelling. It could take a stronger voice in Brussels, obviously, and represent a clearer position there. However, I still think it has a lot of scope for voluntary codes of practice in the United Kingdom on food labelling, which would tidy things up and make things much better. To take a case in point, the National Food Alliance and the Food and Drink Federation and LACOTS recently got together to produce a joint Health Claims Initiative, which is a code of practice on health claims. They had to do this because the United Kingdom Government was not, in my view, actually taking its responsibilities for food labelling seriously, and producing its own code of practice on health claims. By health claims I mean such things as "Good for your heart" or "Helps lower cholesterol"—such things that you find on packets quite frequently these days. This is something which, I think, the Agency should be doing; it should be setting up committees, where all are represented—the industry, consumers, the enforcement bodies—to come up with clear codes of practice on food labelling. These would not, obviously, be law because that is for the EU now, but they would have the force of law, as I understand it, because any manufacturer breaking this code could be liable to prosecution for having not taken account of due diligence. I understand from my colleagues in LACOTS that if we had clearer codes of practice then they could be used in courts of law for prosecutions on food labelling cases. Here is something the Agency could do in its first few years: set up a set of committees to look at codes of practice on food labelling. They would be on such things as health claims—"Helps lower cholesterol" and so forth—and it would be on nutrition claims. There are no good rules on nutrition claims, so even "Low fat" at the moment is completely undefined. It would be on areas such as your turkey burgers, where you could have quality standards for aspects of food. You could have a code of practice on how much turkey there needs to be in a turkey burger in order to call it a turkey burger. That sort of code of practice could be worked out quite easily within the Agency, and we have not got those codes of practice at the moment.

  222.  You think that is better than enforcement?
  (Dr Rayner)  I think one obviously needs enforcement as well, but the problem, at the moment, is that we have not got the rules to play by, in many instances.

  223.  How about the red meat and cancer scare? The level of proof that you think the FSA should act upon? Should it take the lead?
  (Dr Rayner)  I think it should take the lead on food scares, and I would actually rather Jeanette answered that. I would take a precautionary principle line myself. Thirdly, your third question in terms of power. I have said that certainly the Health Education Authority has not had the power in the past, but that is because it has been, effectively, an agency of the Department of Health for the last few years. So of course it cannot do the sort of thing that Jeanette is arguing for, which is better co-ordination in the area of provision of information about healthy eating. We have had MAFF, the Department of Health and the Health Education Authority squabbling over who was the lead agency producing this information. I think the Food Standards Agency could bang heads together and ensure that clear, consistent messages come out from Government about healthy eating.

  224.  So you think the powers are sufficient?
  (Dr Rayner)  I think they are, because I think, at the end of the day, I see the Agency as merely an advisory body, but at arm's length from Government. It has still got to be the Government itself which decides on whether to take action on particular issues. I am hoping that the Agency will provide clear advice to Government and that advice will be made public so that everybody can see where the Government is taking action or not taking action on food scares, for example.


  225.  Can we assume from that, Dr Rayner, that you do not have much confidence in the current European Directive under which this Government has to label food?
  (Dr Rayner)  The 1979 Food Labelling Directive, I think, is now out-of-date, and it needs a lot of work done on it to bring it into the 21st Century.

  226.  We were told last week that we are likely to get draft regulations this week published by the Government in relation to food labelling. Are you likely to be looking at that?
  (Dr Rayner)  Yes.

Chairman:  If you look at it during the next seven days I wonder if you could drop a note to the Committee about your views on the regulations that are about to be published. I think that would be interesting.

Mr Paterson

  227.  You gave us graphic figures on the number of unnecessary deaths from heart disease. If you were given £40 million a year for ten years with a specific remit to reduce deaths from heart disease, how would you spend that money?
  (Dr Rayner)  I would spend more money on issues such as food labelling; looking at improving codes of practice on food labelling so that claims on food packets, such as "Helps lower cholesterol" are actually true. At the moment you are finding them on some packets where the claim is true, in regard to, say, foods low in saturated fat, and you find them on other packets where it is not true, in terms of things like bio-yoghurts. Sometimes you can trust a claim and sometimes you cannot. I would spend a lot more energy on improving food labelling in this country, but that is partly because I am interested in it. I think, obviously, health education still has a role to play. There is a whole range of things that you need to do. Because I am personally interested in labelling I would spend a lot more on it. There is nobody, as we speak, for example, doing any research in this country on food labelling and how to make that clearer for consumers to understand. Everybody says food labelling is important, and you have mentioned it a lot today, but there is no research going on. For example, a colleague and I did some research about five years back on looking at making the nutrition labelling panel clearer for people to understand—the bit on the packet which says how much fat there is a food. When it says 6g per 100g fat, nobody really knows whether that is a high fat, a low fat or a medium fat food. We did some research for MAFF which showed which formats would help consumers make better sense of that sort of information.[1] It is clear—although it seems obvious to you but we proved it—that if you put the level of fat in words rather than in numbers it is much easier for people to understand. So, for example, if you said on your packet of crisps that they are high in fat then you do not need to make sense of the numbers. That research has now been forgotten about and nobody is doing any more research in that area. It was, of course, disputed by the food industry, so it probably needs to be done again and reconfirmed seven years later, but nobody is really doing any work on food labelling, apart from the sporadic initiatives which I was talking about earlier.

  228.  If food was labelled to your satisfaction——
  (Dr Rayner)  I think it would help people.

  229.  How many deaths would be saved per year?
  (Dr Rayner)  I do not know. I am not guessing. The figures on the numbers of deaths which are preventable, I think, are quite robust, but when you actually get to working out the proportion of deaths which could be prevented by an initiative on food labelling, say, or an initiative on improving school meals, or an initiative on food advertising, or an initiative on improving health education about diet in the United Kingdom, I do not think it is possible to say, really.

  230.  So would it be worthwhile at all?
  (Dr Rayner)  Of course it would be worthwhile, because all of these things add up. If you did all these things properly then you would be able to prevent 30,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease each year.


  231.  Dr Rayner, is it not the case that it is not just an issue of deaths; we are talking about the quality of life that people will suffer from?
  (Dr Rayner)  Yes, that is true. That is why I was careful to talk about premature deaths. These are deaths before the age of 75. Of course, everybody has to die of something but in terms of cardiovascular disease these are deaths before the age of 75. I was careful to give my numbers in terms of premature deaths.

Dr Ladyman

  232.  The more that I listen to the evidence today—not just from yourselves but, also, the previous witnesses—the more I become convinced that labelling is not the answer, despite the fact that all witnesses have been telling us it is. It does seem to me that if the food was properly labelled, if people understood the labelling, if people understood what constituted a healthy diet and then used that information to construct a healthy diet, then we would reduce all these premature deaths. However, those are an awful lot of "if"s. I am far from convinced they would ever happen. I just wonder, should the Food Standards Agency in the Bill have more pro-active powers to say to food manufacturers "That packet of burgers contains too much fat. Take it off the market. You can make a packet of beefburgers which tastes as good and does not have that much fat in it. I am not going to allow you to sell it"? Would that be more effective?
  (Ms Longfield)  I think that labelling is necessary but not sufficient. It absolutely has to be of the highest standard possible; it has to be compulsory—all products have to have it; it has to be comprehensive; it has to have everything on it that people want to know—not just the bits that manufacturers want to tell you; and it has to be comprehensible—people need to be able to understand it—and it is none of those things at the moment. However, you are right: even if you had all of those things it would not be magic, it would not work. I was thinking what I would spend the £40 million on, and I have got ideas, but you are right, that would not be enough. So we would want the Agency to get into negotiations, however they would be conducted, about reducing the fat content of food, about reducing the salt content of food and about reducing the sugar content of food. This is anecdotal, this is not proper science—I am sorry—but we have just instituted a new thing in our office, which is the office fruit basket. Out of the normal pot of money that we would get our tea and milk out of we have now decided to go to the market round the corner and get a big basket of fruit. All of us know we are supposed to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, at least, and all of us look kind of shifty when anybody asks us whether or not we do. All we have to do to, probably, double the fruit consumption of everybody in the office is put a great big basket on the desk which people just eat as they walk past. It is to do with availability, it is to do with normalising behaviour, it is to do with feeling like it is free even though we are paying for it, really. So it is very low in cost, it is at the market round the corner, and it is also to do with trying to control the anti-health messages as well. So labelling and advertising regulation usually go together in legislative terms but I do not think I have seen the word "advertising" mentioned in the draft Bill anywhere, and I think it would be an enormous mistake for the Agency not to have a role in trying to regulate food advertising in some way because if the Agency is, as we hope, going to take a whole view about how the food chain works and about what is produced and what is consumed and how it is processed and all these things and it tries to promote accurate and balanced and fair information, that is going to pale into insignificance even if it has got £40 million if there are other parts of the industry spending £500 million promoting exactly the opposite. It is not going to work.

  233.  May I put it to you, then, that it follows from what you have just said about advertising that the Agency really ought to have powers over food marketing, which is more than just advertising, it is also the lay-out of the stores?
  (Ms Longfield)  Yes, absolutely.

  234.  One of the previous witnesses said to us that if there is unhealthy food on the market, you can bet it is going to be mostly available in the places where people with lower incomes do their shopping. So would you suggest that if we extend this to say the Food Standards Agency ought to have powers over marketing, when food inspectors are going out inspecting food premises they should not be just checking for bacteriological problems but they should also be saying, "Put alongside that packet of beefburgers this other packet of beefburgers which is healthy," or, "Take away that display of fatty foods and put this"? Would you see them having that sort of power to advise them?
  (Ms Longfield)  I do not know that it would be as direct as that, that it would be the person who goes round to do the hygiene inspection doing that same thing, but certainly I would want the Agency to take a broad view of the food chain and think, how are we going to influence the range of products that are in any one shop, how are we going to influence the price, and that might mean getting into negotiations about Common Agricultural Policy reform, it might mean getting into discussions about advertising regulation, it might mean getting into discussion about which foods do and do not have fat in them, it might be making recommendations to planning guidelines about the circumstances under which certain retail outlets are allowed to operate in certain areas, all kinds of different things that have an effect on people's access to healthy foods or not. So I am not sure that it would necessarily be right for the environmental health officers or the trading standards officers to have that job. It would be, I think you are right, a job for the Agency to look at how those desirable effects might come about and encourage different parts of the government machinery to do their bit to make sure that that happens.
  (Dr Rayner)  There is a freedom of choice argument. In terms of the turkey burgers I think it would be helpful for your turkey burgers to be labelled clearly if they were high-fat rather than that they had X per cent. of fat on them, so that people could actually see that these were a high-fat product. Also, there would be some codes of practice saying what you can say when you say this is a quality turkey burger. You cannot have 50 per cent. skin. So I would restrict people's freedom of choice in some circumstances. Children are a clear case in point, where it seems legitimate to restrict people's freedom of choice, but given the current circumstances and people's obsession with this whole notion of freedom of choice, I think you have to take account of that. But I do think labelling would go a long way to helping people to make better choices if the information on the food packets was clearer and actually true.
  (Ms Longfield)  My colleague has reminded me of something. One of the things in their proposal about the performance of the Agency is that shops which only sell wrapped confectionery and fizzy drinks and crisps should be exempt from the charge and that sends completely the wrong nutritional message. It says, "Eat these foods, they are safe." So at the very minimum I think that we will be wanting to be arguing in the consultation over charging and exemptions from charging that at the very least if you are going to exempt basically sweet shops and tobacconists from the charge they should also be exempted if they have uncut fruit or uncut fruit and vegetables also on sale, because it is an incentive for all those shops that currently sell sweets and crisps and fizzy drinks who currently also sell a little bit of fruit in the basket and a few sandwiches to stop selling them. So you go into the shop and you have no choice. It is sweets and crisps and fizzy drinks or nothing. So at the very least they could be exempted if they sell fruit and maybe vegetables as well, or maybe even exempt greengrocers, because, heaven knows, if we need to double fruit and vegetable consumption in this country then we are going to have to do something structural to support fruit and vegetable consumption, and saying that it is better to eat crisps and chocolate and fizzy drinks is just bonkers.

  235.  But if we adopted the model that you just suggested, are you saying the local Sainsbury's superstore does not have to pay anything because they have a vegetable counter?
  (Ms Longfield)  No, greengrocers only, only fruit and vegetables, the traditional greengrocer who has been forced out of business by other things.

  236.  Could I come back to one final question. We have talked about these turkey skins quite considerably. I just want to come back to this safe and unsafe foods and the idea that you can achieve everything by labelling. It would seem to me that it is perfectly possible to build a healthy diet around turkey skins. If you happen to love turkey skins and you just have one portion of turkey skins a week and the rest of your diet is fruit and vegetables, it is probably perfectly healthy.
  (Dr Rayner)  No.

  237.  Unfortunately, I do not see people being able to make those sorts of sophisticated choices no matter how much we improve labelling. Do you really believe that——
  (Dr Rayner)  No, I do not think labelling is the solution to everything; of course not. I just think so little has been done on improving the comprehensibility of food labelling in the last 20 years that a lot more can be done and that would be helpful. I am not saying it is going to solve everything and there will always be some people who disregard the high-fat message on the turkey burger.
  (Ms Longfield)  And, of course, the people who sell food know how to do so. They know how to design a label to make it attractive; they know how to design an advertising campaign to make it attractive; they know how to market things and where to put them in the shop to make them attractive. If we could only harness all that for the good stuff instead of for the not-very-good stuff, then we would be getting somewhere.


  238.  I am very tempted to ask you, having a message on a packet of cigarettes that says, "Smoking kills", what you do about that when there are 300 citizens each day dying in this country from smoking and it has been clearly labelled under public health measures for many years. Presumably these people addicted take no notice?
  (Ms Longfield)  I do have a concern that some of the food and drink products that are on the market might be slightly addictive when I have seen how many people consume them. I am sure they are not really. Obviously there is a problem of addiction with smoking which makes it a slightly different kettle of fish to food.

  239.  But the labelling is quite clear and stark in terms of what this can do to the individual?
  (Ms Longfield)  But there are issues to do with advertising, as you know, to do with promotion, to do with marketing, to do with money-off coupons, to do with sponsorship, which is linked to sports events and racing and so on and so forth—all kinds of things in the marketing mix. Marketing is price, place and product—and promotion. There is another `P'. Anyway, there are lots of `Ps' in the marketing mix apparently that the food industry are very well aware of and labelling is only one of those bits of the mix. As I say, it is necessary but it is not sufficient. I do not think it is magic, but if you do not get it right, then lots of other things do not go right either.
  (Dr Rayner)  And you do not know what would have happened to smoking consumption had they not had those labels on the packets.
  (Ms Longfield)  It could be worse.
  (Dr Rayner)  It could be worse, yes. It is difficult to disentangle the impact that labelling has on other things, which I said earlier, but I still think it is important and it is such a mess at the moment.

1   Black A, Rayner M (1992) Just Read the Label. Understanding nutrition information in numeric, verbal and graphic formats, HMSO: London. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 12 April 1999