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House of Lords

Monday, 25th November 2002.

The House met at half-past two of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Southwark): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Nutritional Labelling

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether sufficient progress is being made towards the introduction of a legal requirement for all pre-packed foodstuffs sold to carry nutritional labelling.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the European Commission has indicated that it plans to propose revisions to the nutrition labelling directive in 2003. The Food Standards Agency is pressing the Commission to introduce compulsory nutrition labelling for all foods and a clearer format for nutrition information.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, I am sure the Minister will agree that this has been a very frustrating time for the FSHA. It is outrageous that British consumers should be denied the benefits of nutrition labelling by the EU. Does the Minister agree that it must have been frustration that led the FSHA to make the silly suggestion that menus should carry nutritional information? Does he further agree that this would be impossible, impractical and unnecessary?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I certainly agree that we want to see progress made in relation to accurate information on labelling. The FSA will continue its efforts to encourage the European Union to act as quickly as possible. As to the question of information on menus, I am advised that the chief executive of the Food Standards Agency informed the agency's board on 14th November that, contrary to reports in the media, the agency had not called for catering outlets and restaurants to list the calorie contents of their dishes. He explained that people are entitled to information when they eat out, but that it should be practical and meaningful and offer consumers real choices.

Lord Brookman: My Lords, does my noble friend recall that I have previously raised the issue of celiac disease? People who have this condition have to stay on a gluten-free diet for the rest of their lives. My noble friend said that progress is being made—he is correct; some shops are doing quite well—but does he not

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agree that much more needs to be done by superstores and all kinds of outlets? This is a problem of immense importance.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. The EU has published some proposals in this area which will help, but it is taking time to bring them to a successful conclusion. It would be of benefit to retailers if more information was given because the public would have greater confidence. Retailers providing such information would probably find that more customers came to their shops.

Lord Richard: My Lords, will my noble friend discourage the practice of some restaurants of putting the calorie content of their dishes next to the entries on the menu? Some of us find it a little intimidating.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, nothing must get in the way of a noble Lord and a good dinner. I certainly agree that we need to be proportionate. It is right to give information to the public, but we do not want to discourage people from going out to eat in a perfectly acceptable way. We need to get the right balance.

Lord Elton: My Lords, will the Minister take any opportunity he has to encourage the various trades when they publish this, for some of us, essential as well as useful information, to do so in a print that people of a certain age are able to read?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. The same point can be made in relation to medicine labelling. The Government are pursuing the matter.

Baroness Warnock: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be helpful if guidance were given to restaurants that they should always provide gluten-free alternatives? The problem of the celiac condition is increasing and it is very frustrating for sufferers when they go out to eat and are told that there is no such thing as a gluten-free dish.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I understand the noble Baroness's point. We need to be proportionate. We need to avoid insisting on restaurants providing extensive information. On the other hand, many restaurants find that if they provide some of the information to which the noble Baroness referred they get more custom. It can be seen to be a commercial advantage.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, will the Minister underline the point that the importance of these regulations is that they should be uniform in presentation and, as my noble friend said, in a print which is recognisable? This will enable comparisons to be made readily and easily.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Yes, my Lords. It is also important that when a claim is made for a product—for example, that it has a low salt content—the consumer can have confidence that it is indeed a low salt product.

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Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, is it not important to avoid taking steps that might drive smaller restaurants and manufacturers out of business? There used to be a saying, caveat emptor, but that seems to have been completely forgotten nowadays.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, let me assure the House again that there is no proposal within the EU or this country for information about the nutritional content of meals having to be available on the menu. That must be right. Equally, whether the restaurant is a small outlet or part of a large chain, it may be to its advantage to provide some information. I know from the comment made by my noble friend about gluten-free food that retailers who make it clear that a product is gluten-free will find that shoppers are more likely to use them.

Earl Howe: My Lords, is the Minister aware that some processed foods contain high quantities of salt, sometimes sugar and sometimes both, and are labelled in such a way as to suggest that they are as healthy and nutritious as fresh fruit and vegetables? Without giving the brand name, a particular variety of spaghetti and sausages has a label on it which, I understand, states "one portion of fruit or vegetables"? Is not that potentially misleading to the consumer? Should it not be strongly discouraged?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, it is potentially misleading to the consumer. That is why we need better regulation in this area. The important point is that if a claim is made for a product the consumer can have confidence that the product meets that claim. That is the purpose of the current discussions on proposed EU legislation.


2.38 p.m.

Lord Moynihan asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is their current policy towards Iraq.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, our policy remains to ensure that Iraq complies with its obligations under relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions, including by giving up its weapons of mass destruction. The United Nations Security Council, through its unanimous adoption of resolution 1441, has served notice on the Iraqi regime that it must now give up those weapons or face serious consequences.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. We all hope that, in the words of Hans Blix last week, a war can still be averted. However, does the Minister agree that the use of force against Iraq opens up the possibility of an on-going military and political entanglement and that the quicksands of Middle Eastern politics dictate that any decision to use force

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against Iraq must also include a strategy for the long-term, post-war stability of Iraq and, indeed, of the region as a whole? What assurances, therefore, can the Minister give that Britain will not enter into a conflict against Iraq without a clear, effective and well-planned exit strategy?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord's quote of what Hans Blix said. There has been no decision to launch any military action and we very much hope that we will avert so doing. The government of Iraq is a matter for the Iraqi people. We believe that the people of Iraq deserve a better government, one based on the rule of law, respect for human rights, economic freedom and prosperity. We welcome the external opposition's role in discussing the future of Iraq and in debating issues such as democracy, that cannot be discussed in Iraq. Government officials from the United Kingdom meet regularly with external Iraqi opposition members to remain informed on their thinking. As at the end of the Gulf War, Britain would remain at the forefront of efforts to help the Iraqi people into the future.

Lord Judd: My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the United Nations resolution is to disarm Iraq and that that is the objective? Should it become necessary with UN endorsement to deploy force, can she clarify whether it will be the responsibility of the Secretary-General or the United States to assemble the necessary military operation?

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