|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
I have no doubt that we will be told that to label the country of origin, which differentiates between member states of the European Community, is not possible. However, we have to recognise that a requirement may be imposed on the agency to identify the country of origin if that country happens to be the United Kingdom, simply because Parliament, in its wisdom, has determined that standards should be different in this country from those in other member states. That is of course the position, be it for animal welfare or for food safety, in a number of cases.
It follows therefore that the agency could well be required, if it is to fulfil its function properly, to protect or guard against risk; that is, if you accept those words. I do not think that we should have done so, but we will not go back on that. If there is a duty to protect against risk, and if Parliament thinks such standards as are enforced in the rest of Europe are not adequate, the only way the consumer can easily identify these higher standards which Parliament deems appropriate and necessary must be through identifying the country of origin. It will not be adequate to be told that, much as we wish to recognise the wisdom of our own legislation, we cannot in fact inform the consumer of the country of origin within the Community. That is simply unacceptable.
So often producers in this country find themselves disadvantaged in terms of competitive cost, and the consumer has the advantage. I should have reminded the Committee, as I did at Second Reading, that I am an apple grower and indeed a farmer, because this matter is certainly relevant to my business. I am told that I cannot stick a Union Jack label on each of my apples--but I do, as it happens! But that is not communautaire and it is certainly something that I find exasperating.
I hope that the Minister will recognise that it is not enough simply to say that this matter goes beyond the remit of food protection. It is all about food protection. It is all about following up the precedents which Parliament has already set in these matters, ahead of other countries.
Lord Montague of Oxford: I want to comment on the excellent spirit of the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, although I am a little cautious about the way in which they were presented. The noble Baroness's speech was eloquent but the terminology of this amendment does not quite capture what she has in mind. I would like to make it absolutely clear, however, that I support that spirit.
Let me make an additional point. The noble Baroness made the point about the chemical formulae, which we are all supposed to understand so that we can be aware of what we should and should not buy. What I find so objectionable--and I know many other consumers do--is that these pieces of information are printed so small. It is all very well for the young, who can read so brilliantly, but with no disrespect to the noble Baroness certainly I find that it is just a little difficult when you have a pair of glasses which are virtually magnifying glasses. There seems to be plenty of space for wonderful stories, which are misleading, and wonderful illustrations, but nothing that we really need. There is insufficient clarity as regards what we really need to know.
Let me make one cautionary noise about country of origin. In terms of food and being alert to the country of origin, for the reasons we have heard that information is very appropriate. But people use country of origin information for all sorts of other purposes. There are political uses--you cannot buy anything from Peru, or this country or that country--and I am very nervous about boycotts and what might happen if we start saying that every specific country has to be identified.
Lord Desai: Like the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, I wish that we had separated the matters of labelling and nutrition. I am sorry to continue to fight this lost battle. The previous time I discussed it, I thought I was speaking on the Government's side, and my noble friend undermined me.
Let me try once again. The tremendous fear that consumers have about eating has arisen more from microbiological problems than from nutritional problems. Nutritional labelling is a good thing and I do not want to deny that; it is the positive side of eating. But people are worried that what they eat might
For example, if a product contains pork extract, a Moslem might want to know that. We have not discussed that aspect of eating. However, some people may not eat certain foods not because of health but because of strong religious beliefs, and therefore would much rather know whether the food contains beef extract, pork extract, egg or whatever it may be. Many vegetarians, for example, may be very upset by such things, so it is much more important that the physical details are known.
Other aspects are desirable, but I feel strongly that if the agency does not concentrate on the core task of reassuring consumers about microbiological risks, even though it may do fantastic things in other directions; if it does not prevent the next food panic, it will have failed.
Lord Rea: Perhaps I might briefly answer my noble friend Lord Desai. Of course, he is right. The public are primarily afraid of getting food poisoning, but the deaths caused by faulty diet far outweigh the deaths caused by food poisoning. Food poisoning is a nuisance. There may be a million cases a year--we do not know as most of them are not reported--but they are mostly self-limiting. People often know not what they eat, and often it will bring them to an early grave if they continue to eat as they do. I agree that we cannot tell people what to eat. But the agency can provide information which might be supplied to it by others to help convince people to eat a diet which will make them feel a lot better; be less of a burden on the health service; and perhaps allow them to live a little longer. However, that is not the important point because they should be healthy while they are alive.
Baroness Hayman: Combining discussion about nutrition and labelling into one portmanteau debate has led us down some fascinating byways, but it presents something of a challenge in summing up and responding to the amendments. I shall try and do so, first, by dealing with the issue of nutrition. I say at the outset that I understand the strength of feeling reflected in this debate that there should not be any retreat--if I can put it that way--from the principles set out in the White Paper that we should encompass nutrition within the objectives of the agency. My noble friend Lord Rea suggested that I said it outside the House, but perhaps I can say within the confines of this Committee that the Government are fully committed to the agency having a major role in nutrition and in diet; in it being a key part of its remit for protecting public health.
The agency will be a key player in helping the Government to deliver on their commitments to public health in the White Paper, Saving Lives: Our Healthier Nation, in partnership with the Department of Health. He is right to point out that the health consequences of poor nutrition in general go far wider and affect far more people than the health consequences of food
However, the general approach in the drafting of the Bill is to define the agency's general functions and not to specify every individual subject area in detail. If we took a prescriptive approach in relation to nutrition, we would need to spell out other subject areas in equal detail. Then we would have the danger that we have discussed on other pieces of legislation in other Committees of your Lordships' House that we might end up with an exclusive list and thus remove the agency's ability to be flexible. We would almost certainly leave out something important which might arise in the future.
I am grateful to my noble friend for spelling out what the White Paper said the agency would be responsible for in terms of nutrition. He saved me doing exactly the same thing. I can certainly assure him that there is no stark contrast with the White Paper here. We are not resiling in any way from the areas where we said in the White Paper the food standards agency would be active in nutrition; nor from the areas where it would work in close co-operation with the Department of Health whose overall health promotion responsibilities we have already discussed today. What we are suggesting is simply that in the legislative drafting this is covered quite clearly in Clause 1 and it is not necessary to spell it out.
Another point made in the course of the debate was that there might be within the agency only expertise on issues of microbiological safety rather than expertise on nutrition matters. It may be reassuring for the Committee if I make clear that the nutrition unit of the joint food safety and standards group will form part of the agency and continue to work closely with other departments and bodies such as health promotion
The agency will be a major player on matters of nutrition. However, I feel from the debate that we had at Second Reading and today that while it is not necessary to include this on the face of the Bill, I recognise that there is concern--which I do not believe is justified but it was expressed very clearly by the mover of the amendment--that in some way the absence of the word suggests that this area was not covered. I hope that what I have said today has been explicit as to how we see this unfolding and that there will be real and important roles for the agency in matters of nutrition.
There may possibly be some opportunities for spelling that out in other documentation that goes with the Bill. Perhaps the Committee would give me a little time to think of ways in which that might be achieved in order to give some reassurance while not running into some of the dangers involved in listing areas unnecessarily on the face of the Bill when they have been included in the language of the Bill and when the Government's intention has been made crystal clear. Perhaps I may go away and think about ways in which we can do that and comment on it at the Report stage. That might be of some assistance to the Committee.
I want to move on to the issue of labelling, which was encompassed in some of the earlier amendments and which we believe is clearly covered in Clause 1. We have a specific amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes. It is undoubtedly true that she had the spirit of the meeting with her when she proposed this measure because all of us as consumers recognised some of the difficulties that she spelt out with current labelling forms. I demurred slightly only on the subject of the size of the print because I had to put on my old lady" glasses in order to read the leaflet she gave me which explained what the labelling would mean!
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page