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Food Labelling

7.6 p.m.

Lord Morris of Manchester rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to combat misleading food labelling.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, misleading food labelling has increased, is increasing and must be diminished. That undoubted truth prompted my Question and will inform my speech in opening this debate.

The House knows of my interest in chronic illness and disability both as the first Minister for Disabled People and before then, as a Private Member, author and promoter of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. This interest alone makes the health effects of misleading food labelling—not least the avoidable chronic illnesses and preventable disabilities they inflict on children—an issue of deep concern to me.

That the Government share that concern is made clear by the welcome presence here this evening of my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. I know that he and the Government also share my concern about the daunting difficulties—and indeed dangers—that more than 2 million visually impaired people face in trying to cope with widely practised dishonesties still permitted by labelling legislation.

Of course, the DTI has a major interest in food labelling; but it is plainly of compelling importance also to the Department of Health and merits the participation of a Health Minister in this debate. Certainly no one sees more vividly than my noble friend why prevention was prioritised in the founding principles of the National Health Service. I acknowledge as well this evening the

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genuine concern my friend Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, has about this policy area.

A further interest I have in this debate is that of lifelong membership of the Co-operative movement, in which I have held the highest elective office as President of the Co-operative Congress. I declare that interest with pride and do so in the presence of two other Congress Presidents: my good and noble friends Lord Graham and Lord Fyfe. They will be as mindful as I am this evening that many of our predecessors in that distinguished office also served in your Lordships' House. One of the earliest of them, perhaps to the surprise of some noble Lords, was the Earl of Roseberry who—four years before becoming Liberal Prime Minister—presided over the Co-operative Congress held in Glasgow in 1890.

I know that my noble friends Lord Graham and Lord Fyfe share my delight in the leadership our movement has been giving in campaigning for better protection of shoppers against unscrupulous food labelling. Its reports on abuses permitted under current legislation—Lie of the Label and Lie of the Label 2—reflect its core principles and a tradition of ethical trading that goes all the way back to its birth in Rochdale in 1844.

The two reports won support from the Consumers Association in Food Labels, the hidden truth and the Food Standards Agency's Consumer attitudes to food standards. Their impact was further increased by extensive NOP research and a survey of the marketplace by Sustain, the report of which quotes a label bearing the "pork pie" of a legend:

    "80 per cent fat free crisps".

When shown the label, 61 per cent of NOP's respondents said they thought it was a low-fat product. In fact it was almost all fat and, when told the truth, over 80 per cent said such claims should be unlawful.

Inventive marketing is not, of course, confined to food labelling. We live at an exciting juncture in marketing techniques, with drug companies under heavy fire for trying to invent a new disease, female sexual dysfunction, to generate Viagra-sized profits from curing it. As my noble friend Lord Hunt may have seen, the current issue of the British Medical Journal states editorially that "female sexual dysfunction" is the clearest case yet of a,

    "corporate-sponsored invention of a disease".

Yet drug companies have nothing to teach unscrupulous food labellers. For they create, not imaginary disease, but the real thing.

Lie of the Label, published in 1997, was an expose of those who, in food retailing and manufacturing alike, market their products with no regard for ethical values. "Seven deadly sins" aimed at hoodwinking customers were identified, as were the limitations of current legislation for tackling them.

The second report, Lie of the Label 2, published in mid-2002, highlights a worrying lack of progress in addressing serious health concerns. Thus the prevalence of obesity in England has trebled over the

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last 20 years and continues to rise. In 1980, 8 per cent of women were classified as obese and 6 per cent of men. By 1998 the prevalence had risen to 21 per cent of women and 17 per cent of men. Over half of all women and two-thirds of men are now either overweight or obese.

With their weakness for the stars of TV and cinema and for computer screens, children are shown to be particularly vulnerable to the heavy marketing of food products. Quick-fix convenience foods and a constant barrage of advertising of fatty and sugary foods are important factors in the upward trend of child obesity and the health problems involved.

For the good of child health it is crucially important for food labelling to be clear, readily understandable and governed by effective legislation. But that is not happening now. The provision of nutritional information is merely voluntary and only legally required where a nutrition claim is made. How then do shoppers know how much fat, sugar and salt are in the products they eat and give their children? All too often manufacturers hide the truth, including many household names among the producers of chocolate, sweets and soft drinks, making any meaningful attempt to balance our diets impossible.

In hard summary, the seven deadly sins identified and documented in Lie of the Label were:

    The Illusion—hiding information such as the fact that mechanically recovered chicken was the main ingredient of a product sold as 'mince and onion'.

    Weasel Words—meaningless terms to enhance a product name such as 'wholesome' and 'natural'.

    Rose Tinted Spectacles—clever photography or the use of small plates, making the portion shown in the picture bigger than the actual contents.

    The Bluff—overclaims such as dried pasta that is 'free from preservatives' when it is not allowed to contain preservatives by law.

    The Hidden Truth—for instance the actual meat content in a 'meat pie'.

    The Half Truth—details of what is not in the product instead of what is: for example, the 80% fat-free crisps sounded healthy; but the 20% fat that remained was still very high.

    The Small Print—the 'hard sell' is made clear enough but poor contrast and small fonts make important ingredient information difficult to find, even for people with 20:20 vision, and mock the plight of the visually impaired.

Taken together this catalogue of economies with the truth today involve millions of British consumers in about the biggest stitch-up since the Bayeux Tapestry.

Before saying any more about sinning I turn briefly, however, to a striking example of virtue. It concerns a world "first" recently achieved in Britain by creating the technology to braille the packaging of retail goods. While as I have shown some strive to hide vital information, even from sighted people, that achievement by the Co-operative movement is now making it clearly available to people who are blind. And I pay special tribute this evening to the constancy and commitment of Terry Hudghton, of the Co-operative Group, in having pioneered this humane advance in labelling which, by example, will benefit blind people worldwide.

It took two years of painstaking work to develop the technology needed to start brailling and it was first used on own brand medicines including analgesics and

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vitamins. They were chosen for priority because serious safety issues arise for blind people. To give but one example, without Braille it is impossible for them to distinguish between cartons of paracetamol and aspirin.

I had the pleasure with David Blunkett, Colin Low of the RNIB and Peter White of the BBC, of launching the project in the East End of London. Wide media coverage significantly raised public awareness of all the difficulties and dangers faced by visually impaired consumers. The new technology has since been shared with the industry as a whole to facilitate the application of Braille to an ever-increasing range of consumer goods. This demonstrated that, while the development process had been long and time-consuming, it was not undertaken for commercial gain but rather as an expression of social responsibility and human concern.

Five years after the challenge to the industry posed by Lie of the Label to adopt ethical labelling policies and procedures, the follow-up Lie of the Label 2 report reveals only slow progress. There have been three significant changes in legislation: a requirement to declare the percentage of principal ingredients; the inclusion of genetically modified ingredients and additives; and the identification of country of birth, rearing and slaughter of cattle in beef products. And while the Food Standards Agency continues to produce guidelines and codes of practice, they are difficult to enforce and frequently ignored.

It is against this backdrop that Lie of the Label 2 stresses the urgent need for more effective legislation. Since 1990 there have been two options available: the so-called "Big Four"—energy, protein, carbohydrate and fat; and the "Full Eight"—these same four plus sugars, saturates, fibre and sodium. But since both options are legally required only when a nutrition claim is made, producers of fatty, sugary and salty foods often choose not to list nutrition on the pack. While that is bad enough, NOP's extensive consumer research on the two available nutrition information formats shows them to be confusing to shoppers and of little value in making informed purchasing decisions.

The reality, then, is that manufacturers can still choose not to declare nutrition information and that, even when they do, consumers often find it meaningless. The effect of this on the prevalence of obesity alone strongly emphasises the vitally important need for clear nutrition information on packs if consumers are to understand the value of a product and balance their diets in full awareness of the health risks involved.

In assessing health risks, fat is one of the main concerns. Most of us recognise the importance of controlling the fat we eat. Eighty-six per cent of NOP's respondents said clear labelling would reduce obesity and the health risks it creates. Even so traders persist in throwing dust in the eyes of consumers by implying that their products are low in fat when they are not or fail to give due prominence to fat content.

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For good measure they also act in contempt of the Joint Food Safety and Standards Group's guidance that:

    "Since x per cent fat free claims can be misunderstood, they should not be made".

Where products are mainly fat in nature, such as butter or margarine, good practice is to declare the fat content on a main selling face; but on too many packs it is consigned to the bottom face. This is all the more disturbing since they could be termed "low" or "reduced" fat but still contain a significant amount. Unsurprisingly, 78 per cent of people polled by NOP believe a spread labelled "low fat" to be just that, while in truth over a third of the product is fat. This is typical of the willingness of many people to accept a company's claims at face value—but have they not a right to this trust?

I turn now to sugar, the "arch criminal of dental decay". Sugars have no nutritional value. They displace nutritious foods from our diets and there are many good reasons for consuming less. Only one in four of us knows they are carbohydrates and companies dodge the nutrition labelling rules by hiding the amount of sugar in processed foods in their carbohydrate content declaration.

While starchy carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet, sugar is bad for teeth and contains only calories which, in excess, contribute to obesity. Sixty-three per cent of consumers recognise the need to control sugars to maintain a healthy diet, but the food industry is not allowing them to use the knowledge. Sustain's marketplace survey found many examples of sugary foods with no nutrition information. They include leading brands of biscuits, confectionery, soft drinks and frozen desserts, which fail to declare or list only partial information.

Most people know that too many sweets, high in sugar, are "bad" for us. But what of products we do not associate with high sugar? As manufacturers do not have to specify the sugar content, people unwittingly buy products they would studiedly avoid if they knew how much sugar they contain. With three in four consumers confusing sugar and carbohydrate and 46 per cent not knowing the relationship, it is highly irresponsible for nutrition panels not to list sugar separately.

Salt too is a major concern. It is easily controlled at the table, but 80 per cent of the salt we consume is in processed foods, making it inexcusable that we are not told how much salt is in the products we buy. And why can sodium be declared when salt cannot? After all there are two important problems with listing sodium. The first is that consumers do not relate to sodium the many health warnings about excess salt. Sixty per cent of people say that salt information is essential to healthy eating, while only 20 per cent say the same about sodium. The second problem, no less important, is that very few of us know the relationship between salt and sodium. Twenty-eight per cent think they are the same, but in fact sodium content usually has to be multiplied by 2.5 to reveal the salt content. So the

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28 per cent who think salt and sodium are the same consume around two and a half times more salt than they think they are.

Again, it is harmful to consumers for information about sodium—but not salt—to be given on high salt foods. Without knowing the salt content the consumer cannot make an informed assessment of the food's safety. A glaring example is that of a leading brand of baked beans in tomato sauce. The sodium content is listed as 0.5 grams per 100 grams. On the surface that is a very small quantity, but it equates to 5 grams of salt per tin. This compares to a 6 gram maximum daily recommendation. So salt, like fat and sugar, can hide itself, due to the lack of mandatory legislation to vouchsafe the giving of clear information.

The case for such legislation applies all the more urgently when labelling "tricks of the trade" are used to make questionable health claims. Supermarket shelves are an arena where products jostle for position, each striving for the shopper's favour; and companies seeking a competitive edge increasingly claim that their product contributes to a healthy diet. Of course, every trader has the right to present a product in the best possible light. But this should not be allowed to conflict with the consumer's right to make an informed choice.

Take, however, a market-leading chocolate spread that claims to be rich in calcium, magnesium and vitamins. In fact it contains 33.5 per cent fat and an unspecified—but certainly high—amount of sugar. Its claim is blatantly calculated to lead parents buying it for their children to make a healthy eating association with the minerals and vitamins. Why else promote them on the front of the pack? Yet in truth the product is positively harmful when consumed as part of a diet already high in fat and sugar. Nevertheless 80 per cent of consumers shown the pack by NOP believed it to be healthy. In the same poll, half the respondents wanted an outright ban on such misleading claims.

The Joint Health Claims Initiative, made up of consumer organisations, enforcement authorities and industry bodies, was set up in 1997 to establish a code of practice on health claims on foods. Companies are not required to produce independent validation of health claims prior to marketing—only to defend a claim if challenged.

A further example of health risks from misleading labelling concerns the exploitation of consumer fear. Cholesterol in our blood is linked to a high risk of heart attack and strokes; but the amount of cholesterol in food has only a small effect on the cholesterol in our blood. The amount of fat, particularly saturated fat, has a much bigger effect on blood cholesterol. And the linkage can be positively dangerous when high-fat products make a cholesterol-free claim on the label.

The Joint Food Safety and Standards Group states:

    "Since dietary cholesterol is not a major factor in coronary heart disease and there is a danger of confusion with blood cholesterol level, low cholesterol claims should not be made".

That advice has been reiterated by the Food Standards Agency; but many such claims are still made in marketing high-fat products such as margarine and

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frying oils, rendering ludicrous the argument that stronger legislation is not required. To argue that now is to bark not just up the wrong tree but in the wrong forest.

The European Union has issued a working document which, if adopted, will put both nutrition and health claims on a legal footing but will not end all lying on food labels. Nor would the document allow claims to be linked with diseases, even where such links are well established, are based on official advice and could be helpful to consumers. For example, the link between folic acid consumption and the reduced risk of babies born with spina bifida. Surely here a message on the labelling of foods containing high levels of folic acid would be helpful for women intending pregnancy?

As a longstanding co-operator himself, I am sure my noble friend Lord Hunt will welcome the impact the movement's two reports Lie of the Label and Lie of the Label 2 have made in exposing the extent and seriousness of misleading food labelling; and that he will see the urgency of the case for stronger legislation to protect consumers. I know too that he will be as pleased as I am that since 1997—matching practice with precept—the Co-op has strictly applied its own code of practice for ethical standards in labelling. But exhortation and good example alone cannot solve the increasingly serious problem of misleading labelling without legislative change.

It may have been Mark Twain—if not it ought to have been—who said that,

    "a lie can be half way round the world before truth has got his boots on".

What stronger legislation can do is to reduce the advantage lying so often enjoys over truth in the retailing of goods. Like misleading food labelling itself that advantage has increased, is increasing and must be diminished. This debate is about challenging that advantage and I much look forward to my noble friend's response.

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