Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Fyfe of Fairfield: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester for raising the matter of misleading food labelling. I am particularly pleased as I was a director of the Co-operative Group, the CWS, for 20 years, and its chairman for 11 years and was involved in many instances in the initiatives that led to more responsible food labelling.

I also have a personal interest. Throughout my adult life I have had periods of dietary problems. But my interest is not just business or personal; it is based upon my concern for the health of the population at large and the long-term consequences of unhealthy eating in terms of avoidable illness.

I shall focus on three items raised by my noble friend Lord Morris: first, Braille; secondly, the "Fairtrade" endorsement; and, finally, marketing to children. On Braille, difficulty understanding information is one thing, but not being able to see it is entirely another. In 2001 my noble friend Lord Morris helped the Co-op launch its Braille on product packaging initiative as part of its access-for-all policy. The Co-op continues to

8 Jan 2003 : Column 1086

apply Braille to packaging wherever it can and it is working with the packaging industry to overcome specific technical issues and help other retailers to provide this important information.

To my knowledge no other retailer has followed the Co-op's lead. I believe that the Government should intervene to accelerate the process of providing Braille on packaging, in particular on medicinal products where grave dangers are caused by potential misidentification.

On "Fairtrade", there appears to be a growing number of endorsements appearing on the front of packaging these days—whatever those endorsements happen to mean—to the point that what are designed to be key selling points are competing with each other and being overlooked by highly confused customers. The endorsements include organic certification, farm assurance schemes and environmental issues, "eat five" and "animal friendly". The list goes on. It is not surprising therefore that many of those marks are not, according to the IGD, easily recognised or understood.

One such endorsement is the "Fairtrade" mark. This simple logo makes a difference to millions of people in developing countries who would otherwise toil in poverty to satisfy the western demand for products such as coffee, bananas and chocolate. Building awareness of this critical mark and sales of these products on which it is founded should be at the top of the agenda of any retailer who considers himself to be socially responsible.

The Co-op has recently taken a huge step in its market leading drive to bring Fairtrade into the mainstream, by converting all its own brand chocolate bars to Fairtrade sourcing. At the same time it has produced a report that investigates the cocoa market in terms of supply and inequality of trade and examines just what difference Fairtrade can make. The report challenges other retailers and the manufacturers of leading chocolate brands to develop Fairtrade products of their own.

I pick up on the point mentioned by my noble friend Lord Morris earlier relating to the very worrying trend of obesity in children, and raise the issue of the lack of government action in banning advertising during children's television hours. It is well documented that advertisers explicitly target children. The Co-op's report Blackmail of July 2000 revealed that of all the food products advertised during children's TV hours, 95 per cent were high in fat or sugar.

There seems little point in the Government investing in free fruit for primary school children if and when they sit down in front of the television after a hard day's study, they are brainwashed into pestering parents for all manner of sugary and fatty foods. Recently 130 MPs signed an Early Day Motion asking the Government to ban advertising to pre-school children.

Last year more than 161 million was spent on advertising chocolate and confectionery; a further 34 million was spent on advertising crisps and snacks. Much of that will have been targeted directly at children. But advertisers claim that parents also watch

8 Jan 2003 : Column 1087

those adverts and so do not produce figures for specific child marketing. Those huge advertising spends compare to just 5 million spent on advertising fruit in the same period. It really is quite staggering.

I do not suggest for a moment that fruit or vegetables are completely free of danger. One of the deadliest vegetables I am acquainted with—to my cost—is cucumber, which really can have devastating effects upon one's digestive system. Those of us who have enjoyed the hospitality of Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace may find that that portion of the food available is highly inedible. Certainly, I would caution great care when dealing with cucumber. But, like so many other foods, of course it is subject to trial and error. One does not know that one is allergic to it until one has suffered the consequences of it. After that brief criticism of cucumber no doubt I shall be railed at by the cucumber growing association—if there is such a body—if they hear of that comment in the House.

The food industry denies that it is responsible for growing levels of obesity, blaming instead cultural shifts and lack of physical activity. Part of that may be true. But the simple question is: if advertising of fatty and sugary foods does not encourage purchase, why is so much spent on marketing?

As part of its Blackmail campaign two years ago, the Co-op committed itself to a voluntary ban on advertising high fat, sugar and salt products during children's TV hours and called on the Independent Television Commission and other parties in the food industry to do the same. The Co-op has gone further still, banning the use of child oriented marketing on such products in stores, such as in leaflet promotions, including free gifts and using cartoon characters on packs as part of the store environment. Where is the progress elsewhere in the industry and what is the motivation for such progress when the Government apparently will not take a strong stance on the way in which the food industry is damaging our children's health?

I say that because although self-regulation by manufacturers and retailers is highly desirable, it is I regret to say also highly unlikely. That is why I believe that the Government must take a strong line.

Perhaps we could spare a thought once in a while for the working mother with limited time and a modest budget. Her priority, quite understandably, is to fill her children's stomachs. She may not have the time or the inclination to analyse food labelling or the knowledge to discard misleading information. That is why labelling must be clear and easily understood. That is a matter, frankly, of education.

The costs to the NHS arising from misleading and inaccurate labelling must be enormous. I would not care to hazard a guess, and I do not expect my noble friend the Minister to do so. However, he may care to give the matter some consideration and, perhaps, reply in writing. The cost must be enormous.

8 Jan 2003 : Column 1088

A great deal has been done to improve dietary information. Much remains to be done. I know that my noble friend the Minister shares the concern expressed on these Benches. I look forward to his response.

7.40 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I begin by declaring my interest as a consultant to the Co-operative Group, and I congratulate my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester on his excellent overview of the situation. He sought not only to highlight the contribution of the Co-operative Group but, I hope, to alert us to what was known in the Co-op movement as "consumer education". That was the fashionable phrase then.

I remember Caspar Brook helping to create the Consumers' Association 50 years ago. I remember how the movement was created. Although there are blemishes, pitfalls and disappointments, when I look back over the advances made in consumer education over the past 50 years, I find it remarkable. Of course, one of the original principles of the Rochdale pioneers, more than 150 years ago, was to educate the consumer. Ordinary people could neither read nor write, and they certainly required some uplift, which they got.

I remember a remarkable coincidence. When I entered the House, I met the former Labour Chief Whip, Lady Pat Llewelyn-Davies. She was a great lady and a great Chief Whip. I said to her that the only other Llewelyn-Davies that I had come across was Margaret Llewelyn-Davies, the first national secretary of the Women's Co-operative Guild. The guild's motto was "The woman with the basket". It made no pretence: it was interested in the lot of the ordinary working woman. Lady Llewelyn-Davies said that her husband, Dick, was the grandchild of Margaret Llewelyn-Davies. That was a remarkable link, and it was humbling to realise that there was such continuity.

It is not just the Co-op movement. One of the things that I have acknowledged is the fact that most large supermarket organisations—whether through Co-operative initiatives or not—long ago recognised that they ignored the interests of the consumer at their peril. There was a commercial benefit as well as a social benefit. Speaking corporatively, I might call it a dividend, which accrued to business. As a student, I learnt the phrase "Caveat emptor"—"Let the buyer beware". That tag, which explains it all, says, "You know what you're buying, or you ought to. If you decide to buy it and pay for it and it turns out to be a dud, that's your fault". That is a point of view, and I have bought as many things as anybody in the House, only to get home and realise that I had not wanted to buy what I had, in fact, bought.

My twopennyworth about the subject of labelling is the extent to which it has crept into our lives. It is remarkable. I went to see a lovely lady who is a dietician in my local GP practice—a lady called Linda—and what she drummed into me was that I should read the label and understand what it tells me. She told me the guidelines for fat, sugar and calorific intake. It was good common sense.

8 Jan 2003 : Column 1089

It is not a party issue and never has been. The first lady to be chairman of the National Consumer Council was Lady Elliot of Harwood, a great lady, who was in the House when I came here, in the 1980s, and had a first-class record. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, is not unfamiliar with her role and work. Lady Macleod and Naomi McIntosh, wife of my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey, were also chairmen of national bodies. There has been a growth in protection for the consumer, and the Minister will not take it amiss if we prod him, when he discusses with his colleagues how to do things better.

One of the things that I found out when I listened to my dietician and read the label was the extent to which cholesterol played an important part for someone such as myself—not obese, but fatter than he would like to be and recognising the danger of having too high a level of cholesterol. Everyone in the House will know that that level should be down between five and seven, for a man. I have managed to get between five and seven, but I have heard of people who have gone to the doctor with a problem and have been told that their cholesterol level was 15 or 16 and had to be brought down. It can be brought down, provided that we follow the advice.

One piece of advice that I picked up was that it is possible for someone who has a liking for a certain thing—marmalade, for instance—to find a substitute. I suffer from diabetes, so I follow a little regime and look after myself in that way. My noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester swept up everything in his tour de force and did not leave the rest of us much to get our teeth into. He dealt with the problem of cholesterol and the manner in which the unscrupulous—or careless—producer and labeller tries to sell his products and says to himself that it is up to the buyer to know what the label says.

On the basis of experience in the Co-op movement and elsewhere, we can say that we are in an age in which ordinary people—families, young mothers, wives—lead not one life but two or, sometimes, three. I remember how my mother looked after a family of five, with my dad on the dole. She made everything—the bread, the puddings, everything. I used to go down to the Grainger Market in Newcastle and buy the products as cheaply as I could. I bought the sheep's head; she made the soup. I bought the rabbit; she made the rabbit pie. I have pleasant memories of the quality of the food. Those days are gone, except for those on the lowest income, people on a tiny budget, as my noble friend Lord Fyfe of Fairfield said in his excellent speech. He missed out the fact that, for many years, he was the chief officer of a Co-operative Society and had to put his reputation on the line every week about quality.

I hope that the Government will apply themselves to the question of whether it is right that women should go to work. Is it right that people use a car to go shopping? Is it right that the big supermarkets get bigger and the number of competitors smaller? That is not the object of today's debate. The object is to say to the Minister that there is a job of work to be done. That job does not rely just on the Government, or retailers,

8 Jan 2003 : Column 1090

or producers, or suppliers, or wholesalers; it depends on the concerted effort of everyone. I am sure that the Minister will tell us of the various initiatives which he and his colleagues are taking in an attempt to try to obtain a consensus of how we should be approaching the issue. It will not be easy because if it costs money to either the Government or the producer, there will be resistance.

I believe that my noble friend Lord Fyfe made one of the most valuable contributions today. Ultimately, if we eat badly or poorly, the consequence is that we shall become ill more quickly than we might otherwise. The costs fall on the consumers because the National Health Service picks up the bill. When I see illustrations in the newspapers about people who are obese or who abuse themselves with drink, drugs or in any other way, I become as boiling mad as anyone because they have done it to themselves.

However, the Government with their resources, their research and their dedication, have the opportunity to deal with the problem far better than any retailer or group. Reflecting on the advances that have been made by ordinary people in so many ways, it would be 1,000 pities if, in the next decade or two, we find that people's greed, ignorance or pure cussedness lead us into the state that I believe we are in danger of becoming.

One might say as I say, "If they cannot look after themselves why should anybody else look after them?". But that ought not to be the spirit in this country. I do not believe that it is. I look forward to the Minister giving us hope that the matters highlighted are not only well known, but are also understood by him and his colleagues, and that they have some solutions to the problems.

7.52 p.m.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, is, of course, correct. The mislabelling of food is wrong. There is no party political divide on that. If there is a mislabelling, the Government would be right to crack down on it as hard and vigorously as they could.

I appreciate the contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, in introducing this brief debate. I did not intend to contribute because the debate seemed to be a proposition so worthy in its objective that it would be something that would enjoy universal approval in this House. However, the noble Lord, Lord Fyfe, cannot be allowed to get away with his brutal attack on the dumb but humble cucumber.

It is a wonderful plant and I believe that someone must speak up for it. That is my only purpose in contributing to this brief debate today. I agree that some modern cucumbers are so bland, awful and unacceptable, that no one should eat them. However, I hope that I might persuade the noble Lord, Lord Fyfe, on one occasion at least to come with me to the land that the Ancient Greeks once described as Arcadia—the modern republic of Georgia. The Georgians have as a starting dish the simplest food which must be entirely acceptable to everyone. It is a

8 Jan 2003 : Column 1091

simple dish of ugly tomatoes—certainly not grown for their external beauty, but wonderful in their taste—and cucumbers—certainly not prepared or grown for their external beauty but, again, wonderful in their taste. Combine the two together, sliced, covered with walnut oil and walnut flour, eat with rough bread and a glass of wine, and I ask anyone to find me a simpler, more beautiful dish in the world.

If the noble Lord objects to cucumbers, I hope that he will come at least on one occasion to Tbilisi to appreciate that it is not some dumb, stupid, clumsy vegetable, but really something of great beauty and taste.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page