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24 Feb 2009 : Column 221

British Agriculture and Food Labelling

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I advise the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.37 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I beg to move,

We have called the debate today because of a simple principle: people have a right to know where their food comes from. Currently, meat that is processed here, but imported, such as bacon, sausages and meat in ready meals, can be labelled “British”. We believe that that is a dishonest system, which misleads consumers, undermines attempts to improve animal welfare and disadvantages our farmers. Nothing in current food labelling regulations defines how much British involvement is required before food can qualify as British. A combination of European Union directives, United Kingdom legislation and domestic regulations has created an environment in which consumers are confused and misled by the labelling of their food.

Last week, my office visited some major supermarkets and found several products with no country of origin information. Many others were simply labelled, “Produced in the UK”, which might lead somebody to believe that the meat was from this country. We found a Birds Eye Great British Menu roast beef meal, which admitted on the back that the beef was imported—that is not very British. We even found a Marks and Spencer sandwich, emblazoned with the “nation’s favourite sandwich” and a Union flag, which admitted on the reverse, in rather smaller print, that the corned beef came from Brazil. Those buying a Tesco Disney-branded children’s roast dinner, labelled “Produced in the UK”, would not know that they were feeding their children with chicken from Thailand. They would know that only if they took the time to call the customer helpline.

If people wish to eat imported chicken, that should be their choice. Consumers should be free to choose food from any country. We are in Fairtrade fortnight, and we acknowledge that many people choose to support producers in developing countries. After all, British farmers have important export markets, too. However, real choice requires real information. Clear labelling would empower consumers, not restrict their options. Two thirds of pigmeat imported into this country might have been reared in conditions that are banned here. The current rules force our farmers, who have high welfare standards, to compete against cheaper meat products that can still be labelled as British. Shoppers who wish to endorse higher animal welfare standards by buying British may end up unintentionally backing
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more cruel methods of production overseas. That is why we think that a system of clear labelling is essential, and it is overwhelmingly supported by the public.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): We on the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have looked into the issue a great deal. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if he went to the car park of the Arundel Co-op—if there is one—on Saturday with a petition urging people to endorse, for instance, higher welfare standards for pigs, they would be pushing him aside to sign that petition, but that seconds later the same hands that had gripped the pen to sign the petition would be reaching into the chiller cabinet for the cheapest cut of pork, almost no matter what it was? Labelling is important, but it is not the only part of the equation, is it?

Nick Herbert: The hon. Gentleman should know that there is indeed a Co-op in Arundel, which I have been into. People should exercise choice. If there is a section of the public that wishes to buy cheaper meat, those people should be free to do so, but they should know where that meat comes from. However, at the moment they do not necessarily know that. Last week we conducted an opinion survey through ICM, a reputable pollster, which found that a majority of the public would support British production if it produced food that was either the same price or even more expensive. Only a minority said that it would prefer the cheaper produce. Nevertheless, it is quite understandable, particularly in the current economic climate, that people may wish to exercise the option of cheaper food, but they must know where it comes from. Of course they should be free to choose. The same survey conducted by ICM showed that 87 per cent. of voters agree that the Government should ensure that the country of origin is displayed clearly on food.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): There is not a great deal in the motion with which I can disagree; indeed, I have supported cross-party attempts to get better labelling, so I would support that. However, the one thing that is missing is something about the sourcing of food locally. One way that the public can definitely know that whatever they buy and subsequently eat is what they believe it to be is by knowing that it is produced locally. Should there not have been something in the motion about locally produced food and the way farmers’ markets have shown us the way on what people can expect?

Nick Herbert: We on the Conservative Benches are strong supporters of locally sourced food. In fact, there is a farmers’ market in Arundel as well. Many people choose to support such markets and to buy food from such outlets, because they wish to support local producers. I strongly endorse that choice, which is good for our domestic producers and local farmers. That choice would be exercised more if there were more transparency about where our food comes from generally because that would raise public consciousness about the origin of food, which is important.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): Just to help the hon. Gentleman on that point, does he understand and accept that, in the controversy about labelling, references to local production and farmers’ markets is
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part of what is being disputed, in some cases before the courts, because of misleading labelling in precisely those terms?

Nick Herbert: I am not sure that I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I will come to the extent to which a labelling scheme would be lawful under EU law. We on the Conservative Benches believe that it would be. I cannot believe that sensible legislation would get in the way of transparency in labelling. That is surely what all of us, in all parts of the House, should want. Indeed, it should be a fundamental consumer entitlement.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. It seems to me, looking at the motion and the Government’s amendment, that this is a bit of a non-debate. The issue is important in respect of consumer information, but it seems odd for a debate in the House of Commons. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that a much more important issue in relation to food is food security, particularly with climate change in the world. We are not doing enough about security of supply in the United Kingdom. That is the debate worth having in the Chamber, not this one.

Nick Herbert: I note that the hon. Gentleman’s judgment about whether the motion is worth while did not stop him from making one of his customary interventions. I will turn to the issue of food security, but the two issues are, in fact, linked. If we have rules that effectively discriminate against British farmers, that affects our ability to produce more from our own resources. That is an important link.

I fundamentally disagree that the issue is not important. Not only is it important for consumer confidence in food; it is extremely important for the interests of British producers, who have suffered a great deal. That is particularly true of pigmeat producers, who have suffered declining sales in recent years because the public are, frankly, being duped into believing that they are buying British when they are not. There has been a strong public response to the campaigning on the issue by people such as Jamie Oliver and others. The hon. Gentleman would find that there is public interest in the issue not just in rural areas, but across the country. I therefore do not accept that it is not important.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): In view of the Conservatives’ enthusiasm for transparency in the food chain, I would be interested in the hon. Gentlemen’s view on the Competition Commission’s inquiry last year, which found that supermarkets transfer excessive cost and risk to suppliers and which recommended the establishment of a grocery sector ombudsman. If such transparency were introduced in the food supply chain, surely that would assist him and his party in achieving the kind of objectives that he is advocating today. Will the Conservatives therefore support the recommendations of the Competition Commission inquiry into the supermarkets?

Nick Herbert: I happen to agree with the hon. Gentleman’s support for an ombudsman. Last week at the National Farmers Union conference, I said that our
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major supermarkets needed to treat British producers with more respect, and that proposal would be one way to make that happen. However, I do not see the direct link, which the hon. Gentleman sought to draw, between that proposal and transparency. A sensible scheme for transparency will require the supermarkets to participate. Indeed, I will make the case that a voluntary scheme has not proven possible because of the unwillingness of the major supermarkets to participate. That is why a compulsory scheme is, I regret to say, now necessary.

Mr. Drew: I pay due tribute to my friend in this regard, the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). The Competition Commission inquiry into the grocery trade was hamstrung by the unwillingness of suppliers to give evidence, even in camera. That indicates the unfairness of the system. All parties ought to be standing up to the supermarkets to get greater fairness and a genuinely level playing field. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree to that.

Nick Herbert: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but he should be directing his comments to the Government and asking them what action they propose to take in response to the commission’s proposals. We have said that it is time for action, and that it is important both that the interests of consumers and producers are protected and that a proper balance is achieved.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Does he agree that although the consumer and the supermarkets are one half of the equation, the other half is the public sector, which is a big purchaser of food? He mentioned the pig industry just now, but hardly any British pork is bought by the Ministry of Defence for the Army. Does he agree that the public sector—the MOD, the health service and the education sector—could do much better in its efforts to purchase British food?

Nick Herbert: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. It is a disgrace that the public sector procurement of British-produced food remains so low.

In the ICM poll to which I referred earlier, when the public were asked whether they believed that food in hospitals, schools and the armed forces should be produced to British standards or whether it should be sourced at the cheapest cost to the taxpayer, 90 per cent. agreed that it should be produced to British standards.

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Nick Herbert: No. I have been generous in giving way and I want to make some progress.

The Government’s own food watchdog, the Food Standards Agency, states in its best practice guidance:

Unfortunately, that is simply guidance on good practice; in the real world, poor labelling persists. Despite the FSA guidelines and clear evidence that consumers are being misled and want to see country of origin information clearly displayed on food, too little has been done.

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The Government say that they are aware of the problem. Last week, the Secretary of State pledged to

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), even went on Jamie Oliver’s recent programme, which did so much to inform consumers about the ways in which they are being misled, to agree that the current situation is a “disgrace”. I agree with her. I regret, however, that warm words have been followed by little action. Consumers, retailers and food producers have been frustrated by repeated promises to introduce voluntary schemes, which have clearly not worked.

As long ago as 1998, the then Agriculture Minister, the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), promised to take action. A Ministry of Agriculture press release declared:

The following year, the Minister came to the House to proclaim his three objectives, and said:

That was 10 years ago; 10 years on, Ministers are saying exactly the same thing. Despite repeated promises, there is no adequate voluntary agreement and there is no acceptable deal in Europe. It is disappointing that the Secretary of State has now decided that the way forward is a reheated voluntary agreement at home and yet more negotiations with the Commission.

The Secretary of State told last week’s National Farmers Union conference that he had met representatives of the supermarkets to discuss this voluntary agreement. Perhaps the Minister of State will update the House about the progress of those talks, as there is little sign of any action. What of the stores outside the big four supermarkets, which account for around £40 billion-worth of grocery sales every year—some 35 per cent. of the total? Any voluntary scheme that includes only the major supermarkets would cover less than two thirds of sales.

I am afraid that after 10 years of promises, we on the Conservative Benches are sceptical—a view shared by the farming industry—about the chances of meaningful voluntary agreement with the retailers, because those retailers are not willing to provide the information that the public want. The Irish pork scare last year showed the drawback of unclear labelling. Supermarkets withdrew Irish meat in case it had been contaminated, but there was no guarantee that it had not been processed somewhere in this country and was sitting in our fridges with a British label on it.

We live in an age of consumer choice and transparency. Anyone who stands in the way is on the wrong side of the argument. The British Retail Consortium has claimed that in the labelling of food,

I completely disagree: the production is important, but consumers expect to know the origin of meat, not just where it was last processed. A recent survey found that an overwhelming majority of the public—89 per cent.—felt
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that a meat product labelled as British or produced in the UK should mean that it was from an animal reared in Britain.

There is no suggestion that food retailers are systematically attempting to mislead the public, and the FSA guidelines exist to prevent that, but unclear labelling that is perfectly permissible under current rules does, in fact, allow consumers to be misled. That is the effect, whether it is intended or not. It is because the retailers—or I should say, some of the retailers—do not accept the need for country of origin labelling that voluntary agreement has proved impossible. It is noticeable, for instance, that Marks and Spencer has accepted the need for compulsory country of origin labelling.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): There is a further point to consider. Does my hon. Friend agree that the retailers will accept country of origin labelling when they think it will give them a premium, as sometimes happens with English milk, but they will not when they want to sell an own-brand product and they want to disguise the fact that the meat comes from Hungary or Brazil, for example?

Nick Herbert: Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend that there is evidence that some retailers have been willing to move towards more transparent labelling in respect of premium products, but on the value labels, they have not been so willing. I hope that our survey will give them more confidence that people would support British production across their product ranges, but in any case, I do not think that we should resile from the principle that the consumer should know where the meat comes from, irrespective of the price, and then make a choice. We should stand by that principle.

Opposition Members thus believe that the only course now is to adopt compulsory country of origin labelling. In the first instance, we believe that it should apply to meat and meat products, where the instances of misleading labelling, and their effects, are particularly serious. Beef labelling regulations first introduced in 1997 in reaction to BSE have proved workable. In general, all beef and veal must already indicate the country of origin, by reference to the place where the animal was born, reared and slaughtered. The time has come to extend that practice. So last week, my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and I launched the honest food campaign to ensure that imported meat cannot be simply processed in this country and then labelled with a British flag. We propose to introduce a food labelling regulations (amendment) Bill to make honest labelling of all meat and meat products a statutory requirement. It echoes a number of similar private Members’ Bills that have been promoted by Conservative Members over the past few years, most recently by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon).

To date, the Government have resisted those proposals. I urge them to reconsider and to join a growing consensus in the belief that change is needed. As well as the farming industry and trade associations representing the livestock sector, animal welfare groups such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Compassion in World Farming are also supporting the objectives of the honest food campaign. Let us be clear: those organisations are not supporting another voluntary scheme; they are calling for compulsory country of origin labelling.

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