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Lord Fyfe of Fairfield: My Lords, perhaps I may make a confession. My consumption of cucumber is probably limited to the domestic variety. However, I should be very happy to accept the noble and learned Lord's invitation.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, someone has just said, "Follow that"! I expect most noble Lords are merely wanting to get away for dinner now that that exquisite description of food has taken place.
The debate, which was well introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, has highlighted a very important area of everyday life. People should be able to trust the food that they buy and that it is what it says it is. At the moment, the most certain thing for most people is simply the price. They are not certain what they are getting for that price.
Food bought falls into two main categoriesfood that is bought to eat or cook at home and food bought when eating out. I believe that misleading labelling in canteens or restaurants is equally worthy of further government attention. I look forward to the Minister's comments on that issue.
In both those areas consumers are rightly demanding more information about what they put in their bodies as well as on other issues such as animal welfare and food miles. Those are the types of issues, together with the desire to ascertain what is not in their food, that have made the organic movement so singularly successful. Bearing in mind the Question asked earlier today about the Food Standards Agency, I believe that it is deliberately myopic of the Food Standards Agency to concentrate on whether organic food is more nutritious or not.
That is only a small part of the question. People are reassured by the fact that organic food does not contain pesticides or antibiotics. The Soil Association aims for its members to produce food of as high a standard as possible. Its label has become one of great reassurance.
There is, too, real interest from shoppers in local and regional labelling. People want their local produce to be more clearly labelled. Here, I must declare an interest as chairman of Somerset Food Links and as a Somerset county councillor. Both those bodies have been working on developing a form of labelling that is suitable for local producers to use. It may sound simple to print labels saying "Produce of Somerset" and slap it on food or other products. Actually, it is far more complicated than that. To produce a scheme that can be verified properly by Trading Standards, who will have to police it, has proved difficult.
However, we are having some success. We shall see a label during this year. I know that several other counties, too, have embarked on this work. During the next couple of years, the ease with which people will be able to identify what is their local or regional food will improve greatly. Part of the difficulty that the public have had is that they simply have not known where the food originates.
Many retailers, especially in the independent sectordelicatessens and butchersand the Co-op, which has been mentioned many times today, have made significant voluntary efforts to provide customers with very good, accurate descriptions of their produce. That is perhaps true of butchers in particular.
Therefore, it was a great surprise to me, and very disappointing, that Food from Britain this yearfar from recognising these efforts from a sector that has kept the concept of British food alive during the past couple of decadesshould see fit to award their Retailer of the Year Award to the American giant Wal-Mart. I believe that someone from the independent sector might have merited that award. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that having heard at great length of the work of the Co-opboth on fair trade and labelling issuesthey, too, had a claim for that award. I do not expect the Minister to deal with that point in his reply, but I merely want to register my disappointment with that outcome.
There are many ways in which the public can be misled by the various adjectives. They include traditional, farm fresh, country style, tasty, mature, classic, finest and gourmet. I went through them at the weekend while conducting a small survey in preparation for the debate. I could probably have taken up two minutes reading out the list of adjectives I found on the cheese counter alone. However, I believe that on the whole consumers understand that those are marketing devices and I do not find their use too difficult a concept. I believe that they are not so much a deliberate attempt to mislead as a reasonable attempt to create an image.
Far more serious is a matter which was well picked up by the Consumers' Association in December 2002 in its report on misleading descriptions of processed food, The Ready Meals Market. That is a salutary survey of the current position. Ready meals list the ingredients in the order of the quantities in which they appear in the meals. However, that is useful only if one can read well, if one can read at all and if one is not long-sighted. When I was looking at the packaging, I
As regards the name of the product, one would imagine that an "Ocean Pie" was mainly fish or products of the ocean. But the one I examined contained 80 per cent ingredients other than fish. A Birds Eye chicken pie contained only 18 per cent chicken, 2 per cent peas and 2 per cent carrots. I had to ask myself why they bothered with the vegetables which amounted to such a small portion of the ingredients.
A large part of many ready meals is made up of bulkers; tapioca, starch and potato and wheat derivatives. That is the worst kind of misdescription. Dolmio creamy mushroom sauce contained 11 per cent mushrooms, but my winner in the survey was a Heinz chicken in a creamy mushroom sauce with new potatoes. I would have assumed that it contained mostly chickenperhaps at least 30 per cent chickenbut no, it contained only 11 per cent.
Noble Lords have highlighted the results of eating a diet of such ready meals which are high in starch, sugar and salt and low in vegetables, meat or fish. At first glance, such meals may look good value, but I believe that at £1.50 or more for a dollop of wheat, tapioca and potato, with some flavourings and a smattering of protein, it is not good value and work needs to be done in this area.
No doubt your Lordships will recall the Sunny Delight debate when a drink purporting to be a fruit product had to withdraw its claim to be an orange juice. The product now makes no claim to be orange juice. However, on the shelf below the stack of Sunny Delight in my local Tesco in huge letters was a shelf-screamer which claimed "orange outburst". That was clearly designed to mislead. I therefore believe that together with food manufacturers the supermarkets should take responsibility for trying hard to describe the product. Perhaps my winner in this area was the new Disney range "Roo Juice". Noble Lords might assume that it is squashed kangaroo, but actually it is apple and strawberry juice and a lot of sweeteners.
Finally on fruit juices, often they are labelled as being sugar free. They are sugar-free but they contain a great deal of artificial sweetener such as aspartame about which many health doubts have been raised. I must at this point mention the best among the fruit juices for accurate labelling. It was Copella, with its apple and elderflower, which was 99 per cent apple juice and 1 per cent elderflower.
The Food Standards Agency has come up with some useful guidance on clear labelling but it has yet to tackle misleading labelling. As the debate shows, that issue is of fundamental importance. It is no use being able to read the labels if still they are misleading. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that the Government believe it to be their ultimate responsibility to ensure that people have protection from being exploited either by canteens, restaurants, pubs or supermarkets.
Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, I, too, want to express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Morris, for bringing to the attention of the House the issue of misleading food labelling. I congratulate him on a most informative but deeply worrying and detailed account of the situation as he sees it. I believe that the debate will contribute to the ongoing progress towards clearer food labelling which is allowing consumers to make informed decisions about the purchases they make.
Here I must declare my interest. I have been in the food industry for 25 years. I come from a family of fish processors and suppliers of supermarkets nationally for many years, including Co-op Wholesale and Co-op Retailcompanies we were delighted to work with. I come from the days when fish was wrapped in newspaper or in a brown bag. How times have changed! We have even heard about the possibility of a Braille label.
I must also declare that I am on the board of Cadbury Schweppes PLC, where I chair the main board committee on human rights, ethics and social responsibility and where we endeavour to trade fairly. I was also the chairman of the National Consumer Council for six years. I am president of the National Consumer Federation of the Consumer Policy Institute. I am also president of the Trading Standards Association.
The noble Lord, Lord Graham, described most eloquently the progress which has been made thus far in consumer education. It was lovely to hear him talk about that great consumer champion, Lady Elliot. I have therefore had a lovely time of reminiscence. I hope that in listing my interests I have indicated that I can see the problem from both sides. I see it from the point of view of a manufacturer, where there is an understandable reluctance to cover every inch of the product with labels containing complex information, origins, ingredients and processes, let alone the dreaded special offer stickers which the supermarkets usually want putting on at the last minute when one has to try to find a space.
Sometimes the label is as large as the product itself, or, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, noted, the print on the label is reduced beyond legibility. All of this adds great costs to the products. Over the years, I have watched and I have seen how manufacturersparticularly the ones which were supplying supermarketshave struggled to try to sell their product in an attractive packaging while at the same time trying to set out on their product all the information that is constantly required.
On the other hand, the needs and rights of the consumer to be easily able to gather relevant information about products they wish to buy must be paramount. We are not talking only about someone who checks a label for a few calories but about those for whom food labelling is extremely important: those who have allergies and for whom avoiding certain ingredients is a question of life and death; and those with health concerns or moral and religious beliefs which dictate the choices they make as consumers.
I would like to think that the needs and wants of the manufacturer and of the consumer are not irreconcilable. That may be a job for the Minister when he replies to the debate. Standardisation is needed. Let us have enforceable guidelines from the Food Standards Agency for manufacturers so that all concerned know what are the expectations. Consumers can then make direct comparisons between products with the confidence that they are not being misled, and the manufacturers themselves will have an even playing field, safe in the knowledge that their competitors face identical requirements.
The food labelling regulations of 1996 took us some of the way, but clearly more needs to be done. Accurate information on the country of origin must be standard. Part of this must involve closing the unhelpful loophole which allows meat reared and slaughtered abroad to be labelled as British as long as it undergoes some minor further processing in the United Kingdom. To this end, I fully support the Private Member's Bill in another place which makes a good start at tackling the problem.
More work must be done to protect certain groups of consumers. For those with allergies and those with religious or moral beliefs about what they eat, there should be the removal of the rule whereby ingredients do not have to be included on the label if they make up less than 25 per cent of the overall product; and more must be done to protect those with safety concerns over GM foods and those with, as I have learnt today, health concerns and disabilities that need considerationeven difficulties with cucumbers.
This should all be relatively straightforward, but there is another aspect to the debate that must be, and has been, addressed. By far the most widespread misleading food labellingthe noble Lord, Lord Morris, explained this so clearly with his seven deadly sinsinvolves more subtle marketing strategies: words, pictures and symbols that are implicitly used to mislead consumers by drawing them to make false conclusions about the products that they buy.
Presently there are no obligatory guidelines for the use of words that can be used to mislead consumers such as "Light", "Low Fat", "Traditional" and "Pure". Moreover, frequently pictures on labels are designed to bring about a belief that what is on the label is featured highly in the ingredients. This can be extremely misleadingfor example, Knorr Tastebreaks creamy chicken pasta, which has pictures of succulent chickens featuring significantly on the label but contains only minute traces of chicken in the product.
To clarify this muddle of misleading labelling, criteria for claimswhether explicit or implicitneed to be clearly defined. As the noble Lord, Lord Fyfe, said, matters need to be clear and easily understood. We need a list of approved words and symbols and a minimum standard must be met in order to make certain claims. Thus confusing labelling could be replaced by a clear system of coding which the consumer is able to trust.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, it has been an excellent and informative debate. I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester for his excellent introductory speech. He was absolutely right to make the connection between the speech he gave today and his tremendous work in bringing forward the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill so many years ago.
As he rightly said, the debate today focuses on the experience of individuals in this country. People who are chronically sick and disabled need to have confidence that, on the issue of food labelling, they ultimately understand what they are buying and that they can rely on the system to ensure that they know what it is they are being asked to purchase.
My noble friend is a past distinguished president of the Co-operative Congress. My noble friends Lord Graham and Lord Fyfe also undertook such senior office in the Co-operative movement. I bring no great qualification in terms of seniority in the Co-operative movement, although I am a member of the Co-operative Party and of the Midlands Co-operative Society, and my children have been active in the Woodcraft Folk movement, which is closely associated with the Co-operative movement. I believe that we should be very proud of what the Co-operative movement has achieved over the years. When we come to debate the issue of foundation trusts in the reasonably near future, it will become apparent that many of our proposals for the future organisation of the NHS rest on the philosophy and values of the Co-operative movement. Indeed, we have received a great deal of advice from the Co-operative movement on how we should take forward the organisation of the NHS at local level.
My noble friend Lord Graham referred to the historic links between Members of this House and members of the Co-operative movement. He mentioned in particular Margaret Llewelyn-Davies and Pat Llewelyn-Davies. Hattie Llewelyn-Davies continues this work through the generations and is currently chair of an NHS organisation in Hertfordshire.
The question of Braille is very interesting. While it is very valuable that the Co-op has introduced Braille on many products, as a health Minister I am particularly interested in the introduction of Braille on many over-the-counter medicines, and I pay tribute to the society. I agree with my noble friend Lord Fyfe that we should encourage other retailers to do likewise. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, legibility is of crucial importance to many people, whether in regard to food, medicines or other retail products.
My noble friend asked about the cost. I cannot give him precise figures, but a report by the National Audit Office highlighted the substantial burden of obesity on our society. Taking health, social and financial costs together, the NAO estimated that obesity costs the economy in excess of £2.5 billion each year.
Our action in relation to the food industry has an important role to play in tackling obesity. But I believe that the question goes wider. The national school fruit scheme, the efforts that we are making to improve health programmes generally, and the encouragement particularly of young people but of all people to take part in exercise programmes are of equal importance.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Fyfe that the whole issue of the promotion of food to children is very important. The Food Standards Agency is considering a number of programmes to tackle these issues. It has established an independent expert review of the available evidence. That will pick up some of the issues that my noble friend has raised about the role of TV advertising in food choice. It will also examine surveys of the nutritional content of some foods promoted to children. I hope that that work will give rise to more concerted action in relation to the promotion of food to children. All of us who are parents know that this is not by any means an easy issue to tackle; nor is it easy for schools. Schools which have made brave attempts to promote healthy eating have often been knocked back because there has been a consumer reaction and they have lost money. We need to do a great deal of work in health and in education to try to move forward in a way that takes children with us, which is what we must do.
I come now to cucumbers! The noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser, invites my noble friend to accompany him to Tbilisi. Other speakers too would be very willing to do so. I think that my noble friend risks a transition from eating cucumbers with Her Majesty to eating cucumbers at Her Majesty's pleasure if cucumber lovers have their way! The substantive point is that food is a great thing, but it also carries its risks. We seek to provide informed information to enable individual consumers to make up their own mind. I am sure we all agree with that.
We are all consumers. As consumers we have a right to expect clear, honest and accurate food labels so that we can make properly informed choices. My noble friend Lord Morris made a powerful and persuasive speech to that end. My noble friend Lord Graham said, "Let the buyer beware". The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, gave some excellent examples of why the buyer has to beware. There is no doubt that the importance of food labels is increasing as consumers become more discerning and the food industry introduces new products, new technologies and new ways of processing food.
As my noble friend Lord Morris and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, suggested, others look for specific health benefits. They may be attracted to food making claims such as "low fat", "reduced salt", or "helps maintain a healthy heart". There are those consumers who just want to know that they are getting value for money and are not being taken for a ride when they make a purchase, as my noble friend Lord Graham suggested.
Whatever our personal attitudes to the many concerns consumers may have, there is surely one thing about which we are all agreed: that there should be clear, accurate and honest information so that the consumer can make properly and fully informed choices. I have no hesitation whatever in saying that the Government believe that it is crucial to make sure that we can combat misleading food labelling. For that we undoubtedly need proper regulatory tools and effective enforcement of those rules.
We know that consumers are not satisfied with the current regulatory position. We know that they are concerned that some claims, particularly those made on foods which may contain lots of fat, sugar or salt may not be reliable or simply fail to tell the whole story. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, gave us some excellent examples. There is also evidence to suggest that, despite there being regulations to protect consumers, there may still be products on the shelves which are mislabelled or labelled in ways that they feel are misleading. That is an enforcement issue.
Clearly, we have regulations. We have laws which provide certain safeguards although, I readily accept, not all the safeguards that noble Lords would wish for. But as a first step to improving the current situation, it is important that enforcement of the current law is as adequate as possible. I believe that there is some good news here. I pay tribute to the work of law enforcement officers. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, has a particular relationship now with trading standards officers. I pay tribute to them and the environmental health services provided.
When the Food Standards Agency was created, one of its responsibilities was to ensure the effectiveness of enforcement across the UK. A framework agreement on local food law enforcement was fully implemented in April 2001. Importantly, that gives the FSA a clear role and remit to monitor, set standards and audit the performance of the individual local authorities. That is an important step to encouraging consistencywe all want consistency; industry needs consistencyand a vigorous but proportionate approach. Ultimately, if an audit identifies real failure by a local authority to discharge its functions adequately, the agency has
Noble Lords commented on the Food Standards Agency's guidelines. They are not statutory but are valuable in giving enforcers and the industry a clear framework within which to encourage and adopt consistent, appropriate labelling practices. Many retailers, including butchers, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, and the Co-operative movement, as several others said, have played their part in constructive dialogue. Although I fully accept that we need to look at the statutory framework under which we operate, there is much room to work constructively with industry to ensure that good practice is adopted. Retailers will benefit if they develop good practice, because more consumers will use their products. We wish to emphasise the need for good practice alongside statutory regulation.
The FSA has emphasised several points in its guidance. First, in the ticklish area of places of origin, it makes clear that origin labels on food must be unambiguous. It stresses the importance of clear labelling and, in particular, the need to consider how consumers will interpret labels and store displays. I readily accept the problem. Bacon or ham, for instance, processed in Britain using Danish pork should not be described or presented as British. The agency has recently published guidance on the terms "fresh", "pure" and "natural", which I hope will be extremely helpful. It has also published advice aimed at improving the clarity of food labels. That was another concern highlighted in the Co-op's excellent reports.
I readily accept that guidance can take us only so far and that we need to look at the legislation. Much of it is harmonised at EU level. The Government undoubtedly welcome the recent Commission initiative to review EU labelling legislation. Commissioner David Byrne recently announced a comprehensive review of that legislation. The Commission has made clear that it places labelling clarity and country of origin labelling high on its list of priorities. It is employing consultants to carry out the review and has set up a steering group to oversee the work. It is anticipated that it will report towards the end of 2003. Industry and consumer interests are represented on the steering group.
The Government will take a pro-active role in arguing our cause within Europe. The Food Standards Agency has a critical role to play in European discussions. Among the things we want are a full declaration of specified food allergens in ingredient lists and more comprehensive ingredient lists to help those who want to avoid certain foods. Proposals aimed at achieving that have already reached common position stage in Brussels and are likely to be finally adopted later this year.
I note what my noble friend Lord Morris said about the need to see links between certain foods and diseases. I understand that consumers want easy-to-use nutrition labelling on all foods and agreed criteria for making health and nutrition claims such as "low fat", "high fibre", "good for the heart", "lowers cholesterol", et cetera. The Commission is drawing up proposals to address those issues. We will seek to ensure during negotiations that proposals are as comprehensive and as consumer-focused as possible. We have also been successful as the UK Government in persuading the Commission, with the support of other member states, to look at the rules on origin labelling.
I note what the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said about catering outlets. I know that research has indicated a number of different information issues with regard to non-pre-packed foods and foods sold in catering establishments. I believe that there is a balance to be drawn in this respect. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, about the degree of information that needs to be available, but the agency is to hold a stakeholder meeting in late January 2003 to establish the way forward. I hope that that move will be seen as a constructive response.
In conclusion, I should stress that I am by no means complacent about the current position. I take the strictures of my noble friend Lord Graham to heart. There cannot be any room for complacency. We must be ever vigilant. However, at the same time, short of the legislative changes that we shall undoubtedly see in the next few years, there remains much to be done in partnership with the responsible end of the industry. I commend the Food Standards Agency for its approach. We have had an extremely constructive debate this evening. I end my remarks by thanking my noble friend Lord Morris for his quite excellent opening speech.
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