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The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): Perhaps I should make it clear to the hon. Gentleman, because he does not seem to understand the point, that the guidelines interpret the law that the previous Government passed while putting into effect a European directive that the previous Government also passed. It is the terms of that directive, to which the previous Government agreed, that make the Bill's proposals contrary to European Union law.

Mr. O'Brien: I listened carefully to the Minister, and I acknowledge that the previous Government introduced the food labelling regulations and implemented the EU directive. The Minister is right that the guidance notes do not have statutory force, but are intended to give guidance towards legal enforcement. However, nothing has changed since 1 February except that the guidance has been reissued. We know that the law that existed before did not address the problem, with the result that the deep unease about labels that might be misleading has persisted since 1996.

The 1 February guidelines may lead to some improvement, although we may have to wait a little longer to be sure. However, the nature of the law has not changed. The same legal base for enforcement remains in place; only the guidelines have changed. I therefore believe that my point is valid, despite what the Minister said.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: The Minister will know that the guidelines may help trading standards officers enforce the law in cases of misleading labelling, but they do not have the force of law.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Ministry may have been given defective advice? Clause 3 deals with welfare standards and does not ban EU produce in the way that

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the French banned British beef. For example, EU pigmeat can come into this country freely. Does my hon. Friend accept that the Bill merely seeks to make it clear to consumers that food complies with the higher animal welfare standards required of British farmers?

Mr. O'Brien: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend, although I hesitate even to confirm the legal case that he presented with such erudition. However, it is absolutely right to emphasise that a precedent was set when the British acceded to the French demand that British beef be labelled as such in France. That matter is being considered by the European Court of Justice, but we believe that it is contrary to EU law because it amounts to a ban on importation. My right hon. and learned Friend has pointed out that clause 3 would not impose any form of ban on imports; it merely requires that information be made available that would allow a comparative reference to be made. That would give consumers the ability to make an informed choice, something for which they have been crying out.

Mr. Letwin: Does my hon. Friend agree that we have witnessed something extraordinary? He has just received advice, in Parliament, from a former Attorney-General, yet the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has not made the slightest move to determine whether its legal advice on the matter is right or wrong.

Mr. O'Brien: I defer to my hon. Friend's longer experience in the House. I have been here such a short time that I did not know what to expect in terms of the procedure involved in introducing the Bill. It did occur to me that the Ministry might want to be in touch with me to find out whether there was common ground between us. I published the Bill at the proper time, and although I was slightly disappointed that no contact was forthcoming, I assumed that that was normal.

It might have been very helpful to discuss the Bill with the Ministry. I do not know of any hon. Member who questions the principles behind the Bill, and it is disappointing that the debate has centred on technicalities. I shall turn to the details later, but earlier contact with the Ministry would have ensured that the opportunity represented by the Bill would not be missed, as it would have allowed us to hear learned advice of the sort given by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell).

The guidelines do not even amount to a statutory code in the same way that the "Highway Code" does. The Government say that they expect trading standards officers to operate using the guidance but that is not the same as saying that they must. The exchanges and interventions that have taken place have underscored that point. In her response, will the Minister give a simple, clear and honest answer to a simple, clear and honest question: how many prosecutions have there been for misleading labels on country of origin?

What consumers are asking about foods, here and in other countries, is where does it come from and how is it made? The voluntary undertaking by the British Retail Consortium in November 1998 and the regulations have made progress, but not enough. Otherwise, consumer mistrust of misleading labelling would not be persisting and growing. The force of law is needed--hence my Bill.

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The Bill builds on, rather than detracts from, the current position on food labelling. Hon. Members will note that its long title states that it makes further provision for consumers of food to be informed about the country of origin and standards of production of food presented for sale by labelling, marking or in other ways. That takes into account the recent introduction of the Food Standards Act 1999, which established the Food Standards Agency. The Minister will recall that the Government later inserted an amendment in another place after strong prompting, it has to be said, from my shadow agriculture team colleague, Baroness Byford. That amendment made it clear that in the context of what is now the 1999 Act, the interests of consumers include the labelling of foods. The reference to being informed is a direct lift from the phrase "informed" decisions from the Food Standards Act.

Clause 1 contains the definitions to which I shall refer back when the terms appear in context, save that I highlight the fact that the Bill has been drafted to sit on all fours with the existing food labelling regulations of 1996. It incorporates by reference many of the terms used in those regulations, given the thinking and experience that lie behind those existing non-statutory provisions--which do not have the force of law--a statutory basis.

Clause 2 provides a requirement for food to be marked or labelled at the point of sale to a consumer--the purchaser, rather than the person who consumes all the food--with the particulars of the country of origin. In the case of a single-ingredient food, such as a joint of beef--preferably on the bone--or an orange, that would be simple enough. However, clause 2(1)(a) also provides for the possibility of more than one country of origin, requiring all countries of origin to be identified. For instance, a single-ingredient product such as lettuce may be sourced from different countries. In its pre-packed form, mixed-leaf lettuce may be sourced from different lettuces from different countries but is presented for sale as one food item. The label would simply have to state all the countries of origin, even where, in a pre-pack, the single item--each individual lettuce leaf--could not necessarily be identified as having come from one or other of the countries of origin. The label might read that the countries of origin were countries A, B and C.

That is what the consumer needs. If for any reason, he or she prefers products from a certain country, the necessary information would be available for him or her to make such an informed decision. If the consumer wants to buy a product, such as beef, from one particular source country, the information would be there. As for my second example of lettuce, in exercising that choice, the consumer may want to purchase lettuce from elsewhere, from a supplier who can be sure, as evidenced by the labelling, which can be legally relied upon, that the lettuce comes from, say, the Channel islands--any why not?

Clause 2(1)(b) makes provision for food products containing more than one ingredient. It would be impracticable and an unjustified burden to provide the consumer with the information with which he or she can make an informed choice, by labelling the country of origin of every ingredient, such as seasoning and other additives. In any event, those matters are well covered and are available as information on labels under the present regulations requiring identification of ingredients. Therefore, the Bill would require only that the identity of the country or countries of origin of each major ingredient is on the label.

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For the purposes of the Bill, I have defined a major ingredient, as set out in clause 1, as one that forms more than 25 per cent. by weight of a food product. That is straightforward. The weight of constituent ingredients of a food product is already generally a requirement under the existing food labelling regulations and a food producer will have the information when the ingredients are sourced. The more than 25 per cent. by weight threshold is a proposal that balances the need for relevant information--that is information that tends to affect consumer preferences--against introducing an over-burdensome or irrelevant set of requirements.

I freely accept that the threshold may be an issue that Members wish to debate further. I look forward to that opportunity today and, I hope, in Committee where we can consider the issue in greater detail. In the case of a pre-cooked and packaged shepherd's pie, the country or countries of origin of both the meat content and the potato content would need to be identified. In the case of pork sausages, the country or countries of origin of the meat content would have to be identified, but not the origin of the seasoning.

Clause 2(2) goes to the heart of one of the most crucial matters in the Bill. It addresses an issue of the greatest concern to producers and consumers that has led to mistrust and lack of confidence in labels. When a food has been packaged and processed in a country other than the country of origin, under my Bill, the country of origin would be shown at least as prominently as the particulars of the country where the food has been processed or packaged.

Let us consider the example of chickens bred in Thailand. They are stuffed with hormones that are illegal here and across the European Union. However, they are imported into this country or another EU state and processed and packaged in that member state, and they appear on our supermarket shelves with a label identifying them as being produced in the EU or even in a named member state. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) pointed out, if they are packaged and produced in this country, the package may even carry a Union jack on them. No wonder shoppers feel anxious and are mistrustful of labels when they learn the truth from stories, such as the Thai chicken scandal, that naturally receive wide coverage in the media.

I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, do not wish to consume food which you find, despite today's misleading but wholly legal labelling, is sourced from a country where the animal welfare, health and hygiene standards fall far below the standards we impose on farmers in this country.

In the opening speech in the debate in which I made my maiden speech, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food stated his position on this issue:

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