Previous Section Index Home Page

9.27 pm

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I shall be brief, because other hon. Members wish to get in on this debate.

I am glad that we have heard a little in the most recent contributions about the wider issues of self-sufficiency in the industry. The hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) referred to the bovine TB crisis. Only last night, very late on, I received a message that one of the farmers in my constituency was facing repossession. The blame for the problems that he has experienced, which are also obviously connected with other financial issues, can be laid at the door of the bovine TB crisis and the Government’s inaction. Fortunately, I heard this morning that, following the small contribution that I was able to make and, I am sure, the excellent representation that he received, a deal was struck and that farmer is able to continue on his farm. However, many farmers throughout the country face great difficulties, so I was pleased that the hon. Gentleman raised the issue. I also echo his comments about the Government needing to tackle the problem and act on the recommendations of the report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, of which I am pleased to be a member.

I want briefly to address the wider issues of labelling. Indeed, I was grateful when I heard yesterday that labelling would be the topic of debate this evening. Along with colleagues in the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency, the Government need to address issues connected with the nutritional information with which people are provided. I should probably put on record the fact that I chair the all-party group on cheese—indeed, there are other members of the group in the Chamber this evening.

24 Feb 2009 : Column 252

We have talked about the diary industry and livestock farmers, and the problems that they face, and we are moving down the path towards the traffic-light labelling system, which has some perverse effects in indicating to the consumer how they can make healthy choices about what they eat. For example, a product such as cheese—a product that has been produced for thousands of years in western Europe; a product that has been not only a core part of our diet through all sorts of experiences, but a part of our culture; a product that is rich in protein and high in calcium, which are vital, particularly to women, who may suffer from osteoporosis later in life—can be ruled out by having red lights all over it, owing to its fat and salt content, yet those red lights are based purely on comparing 100 g of cheese with all sorts of other products.

I am indebted to the Food and Drink Federation for its work on this issue in promoting the alternative of the GDA—guideline daily amounts—scheme. That labelling takes a little reading, but it is far clearer to the consumer and far better in the quality of information it provides.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: Of course, one can actually get the right solution by completely ignoring the stubborn FSA approach—the traffic light wheel—and going for something like McCain oven chips, because that company has demonstrated that by putting GDA amounts on labels with some colour coding, it is possible to get readable and correct information so that, rather than stigmatising suitable foods, people get a good diet.

Dan Rogerson: I am happy to have taken that contribution from the hon. Gentleman. The issue is often one of portion size and the neutron-proton model is based on 100 g of everything; one does not always eat 100 g of every particular food.

Mr. Roger Williams: I would appreciate hearing my hon. Friend’s comments on Ofcom, which uses the 100 g criteria in deciding what products can be advertised to children. Surely cheese is a wonderful product for children as they are growing up and need their calcium and protein.

Dan Rogerson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. In fact, Ofcom is using the guidelines presented by other Government agencies. What it is seeking to do—many hon. Members suggest that it is a good thing—is to restrict advertising of junk food for children, but it is ridiculous when it is absolutely fine to advertise diet fizzy drinks, but not a product like cheese.

I shall not prolong my contribution, as other hon. Members wish to speak. I hope that the Government will look more generally at labelling. In his excellent contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) talked about environmental concerns. We have heard a great deal about provenance and origin, which are called for in the Conservative motion, and I hope that the Government will urgently revisit the issue of nutritional information provided to consumers.

Finally, I hope that we will have a debate in this country about the positive contribution that food makes to our national life and culture. We should not constantly reduce the issue to a matter of scientific information, bean counting and number crunching. Food makes a
24 Feb 2009 : Column 253
far wider contribution to our heritage and culture, which we should be celebrating. The Times reported just before Christmas that the French Government are funding research into what makes a good meal and what contribution that makes to the national life. We should do the same in this country and speak far more about the positive contribution that the food industry and food generally make, rather than continually sending out a message of “Thou shalt not” about the foods that people should eat.

9.32 pm

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) has asserted with absolute confidence that the finest beef in the world comes from his constituency. I am pleased to assert with similar confidence that the finest lamb in the world comes from my constituency. Generations of farming families in Clwyd, West have applied their hard work and expertise to creating a unique, high-quality product. It is therefore entirely understandable that those farmers should feel incensed that the laws of this land are so haphazard that they allow meat products from other parts of the world to be described quite legitimately as having been produced in Wales or in the UK when the only acquaintance of such meat with these shores is that the animal has been brought here for slaughter and processed.

That is, in a very real sense, theft. It is the theft of the good will built up by generations of British farmers in producing a high-quality product that people want to buy. They want to buy it because it tastes better, because they know that it has been produced in clean conditions without undue suffering to the animal, and has not been stuffed full of growth hormones and antibiotics. They also know that it has been produced reasonably locally and is not contributing to excessive carbon emissions by being flown half way across the world. Under present arrangements, however, those consumers are being cheated. The label says one thing, but the truth may be entirely different. Under the present arrangements, the consumer does not have a clue about the true origins of the meat being put on his plate. That, on any analysis, is an outrageous state of affairs.

The Government acknowledge in their amendment that

However, expressing that pious belief does nothing to improve the current regrettable state of affairs.

The Government say that it is to the benefit of consumers if supermarkets and retailers comply with the FSA guidance on country of origin labelling, but the difficulty is that the guidance is just that—guidance. It is not mandatory, and the preamble makes it clear that compliance with the advice on best practice is not required by law.

In any event, the guidance notes are widely ignored by retailers. For example, they suggest that

24 Feb 2009 : Column 254

However, typical of the supermarket response to the guidance is that of Tesco, which was quoted in The Independent on 30 January 2009 and said that

Well, clearly it is.

The current state of affairs is unsustainable. It is nothing short of a disgrace that supermarkets and processors are at liberty to plaster food products with Union flags or Welsh dragons and say that they are produced in the UK or in Wales when they are not British and could not, even on the most charitable interpretation of either adjective, be described as such.

The Opposition motion certainly should be supported. Proper food labelling is urgently needed and long overdue. I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House who have expressed sympathy with the motion to vote for it. I have no doubt that we will be applauded by the consumer and the food producer alike.

9.36 pm

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I declare an interest as a keeper of rare-breed pigs. I have four minutes to cover pigs, pork and bacon.

I am very proud indeed of the animal welfare standards in the UK, but the rest of the EU seems to be capitalising on our good nature. Rightly or wrongly, most of our constituents believe that their Government observe and gold-plate EU directives that the rest of the EU pays lip service to. That impression, I am afraid, is borne out by the sad story of the British pig industry.

What on earth did the Government think would happen when, in 1999, they changed pig welfare standards unilaterally, without the possibility of any form of import control, so that cheap meat from pigs kept in lousy conditions would flood the UK market and trash indigenous mid to low-end production? The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has visited some pretty dreadful things on farmers these past few years, but as an exercise in sheer stupidity that takes the biscuit. The result has been that we have simply exported cheap, cruel meat production to the continent.

Today, we have heard a lot about the misdeeds of supermarkets. I was in a supermarket in my constituency at the weekend. A big banner said, “We only sell British Pork”. Many would think that that included bacon, but the sainted Jamie Oliver has alerted us to the sharp practices of our supermarkets. And lo, what do we find, but that that particular supermarket is peddling a large quantity of Danish bacon?

As Jamie told the Health Committee recently:

He is absolutely right. We find on the front of packs “Sourced in the UK”, yet on the back—in the tiniest font, illegible to many of our constituents, or at least to those who do not have 20:20 vision—we find that the product is grown anywhere but the UK.

The commercially obliging badge “Produced in the UK” is admissible under World Trade Organisation rules, EU law and the labelling regulations if the very
24 Feb 2009 : Column 255
last stage in the food processing took place here, even if the ingredients on which it is based were largely produced abroad.

A picture paints a thousand words. Idyllic rural scenes on packets of meat scream “Made in Britain”. That does not happen by chance, for the supermarket marketing men are well versed in human psychology. Flip the pack over and if people have good eyesight, they will see that the meat is extremely well travelled.

My own favourite is something that its retailer is pleased to call Wiltshire cured bacon. There is a way to cure bacon in the Wiltshire manner. I found it in Mrs. Beeton’s cook book at the weekend, and I suspect that the supermarket in question found it there too. I have no way of telling how true to the Wiltshire curing method that bacon is, but that is irrelevant. The purpose of marketing Wiltshire cured bacon is to suggest to the customer that the product is British and therefore trustworthy. Look at the small print and we see that the product is from elsewhere in the EU.

Last month, the Secretary of State stamped his foot and told supermarkets to play fair. He said that they were harming the Government’s attempts to get people to buy British food, but this Minister’s Government have presided over all this. They have exported our one-time poor animal welfare standards to the continent and have trashed the British pork industry in the process. She may agree with Jamie Oliver that that is a disgrace, but if that is so, it is a disgrace that this Government have presided over.

9.39 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Let me begin by reminding the House of my interests, as declared in the Register of Members’ Interests.

Opposition Members are fortunate in that we shadow a team of Ministers who are all, individually, very nice and charming. They may not say the same about us, but that is by the by. That charm, however, cannot disguise their ineffectiveness in dealing with some of our crucial issues. We called this debate with the aim of focusing on just one of the many issues that face agriculture at present, although we do not suggest that it provides the sole answer to the problems of farming.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) mentioned food security and the need for it to be debated. I remind him that we had such a debate last summer, called by the Opposition, in Opposition time. I do not recall the last occasion on which the Government arranged any debate on agriculture in Government time, and I have to say that the same goes for the Liberal Democrats.

Since the 2003 reform of the common agricultural policy, Ministers rightly no longer have the ability, effectively, to fix farm-gate prices, although the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) apparently regrets that. If the Government really want to promote agriculture in this country, they must use other methods, one of which is to make the market work. If we expect farmers to operate in the free market—and I think most Members believe that that is the right way forward—it is incumbent on Government to make the market work effectively, and one of the key factors in that is ensuring that the consumer is properly informed and able to make a free choice.

24 Feb 2009 : Column 256

I was astonished by the speech of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. Although he was keen to quote people such as Adam Smith, it seemed to me that he had no understanding of the way in which a market truly operates. According to the press release that he issued today, my party is seen as the party of markets, yet now we seek to regulate. We have never suggested that there is no need for any regulation at all. On the contrary, there is a need for regulation when the market fails, and this is a clear example of the market failing.

David Taylor: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Paice: No, I will not.

That is why we have proposed a Bill to deal with the problem. That is why we support the proposals of the Competition Commission on supermarkets, why we supported the abandoned merger of two milk groups, and why we want all public procurement to specify British standards. We want regulation only where it is necessary, but, as our motion says, in the instance of food labelling the market has failed, and regulation is therefore necessary.

The Minister referred to her constant meetings. The issue of the Jamie Oliver programme has cropped up several times, and she rightly mentioned our participation in it. The recording took place on 3 November, only a few days after the Minister had taken office. She could therefore be forgiven for not having all the answers that I, and others, wanted at the time. That was over four months ago, however, and we still have no answers.

What was disappointing about the Minister’s speech was that, although she was critical of our proposal for a statutory approach, she was not able to identify the right way forward. Four months since that recording, when she was exposed to a deceit which she recognised and called a disgrace, we have seen nothing. If our proposal is too broad, and the Minister would rather limit Government action to pigmeat, that is a start, but let her take the proposal to the Commission. If 10 per cent. is too low a threshold for the proportion of ingredients, let the Government ramp it up to 20 or 30 per cent., but let them take it to the Commission. The point is that they have not done that.

It is more than 10 years since the present Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), proclaimed, as Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, that he had secured a voluntary agreement. He then talked out my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien). Although the Minister may have been in office in this Department for only a few months, for most of the past 12 years she has been a member of this Government. She cannot deny the Government’s failure to address the issue for all that time.

Next Section Index Home Page