Norfolk farmers often face unfair competition from importers whose food is produced to lower animal welfare standards than in Britain
Even worse, those producers can put the Union Jack on the label to make consumers believe the food is British when it isn't
On 22 March 2004, I introduced a Bill into the House of Commons to change the law on food labelling. The aim is to give consumers more information about where the food they buy comes from
Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make further provision for relevant information about food, including information about the country of origin, contents and standards of production of that food, to be made available to consumers by labelling, marking or in other ways; and for connected purposes.
I am pleased to invite the House to give leave for the introduction of a Bill to promote the clearer labelling of food. My proposal has support from Members on both sides of the House, and the aim is quite simple: to provide clearer, more accurate and more honest information to consumers about the food they buy than is currently required.
There are good reasons for seeking greater clarity in the labelling of our food. The first relates to the standards of animal welfare. Consumers make buying decisions according to various criteria, including quality and value for money, and also according to knowledge about the standards of animal welfare under which livestock is reared. Consumers are rightly concerned to know that the food that they buy in the shops is produced using the best animal welfare practices. Farmers in the United Kingdom must observe some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, and that has the wide support of consumers. Accordingly, consumers should be able to use their buying decisions to support the production of food that meets high animal welfare standards. However, British farmers who adhere to those high standards often face unfair competition from imported food that is produced to inferior standards and is thus cheaper to produce.
The second reason for clearer labelling relates to animal disease. After the outbreaks of foot and mouth disease and classical swine fever, animal health risks have taken on a new importance in the public mind. The risks of animal disease in relation to imported food are beyond the control of individual farmers, but there is a role for the Government in ensuring that the provenance of all food is clear to consumers through clear labelling. The commission set up by the Government to review the future of farming under the chairmanship of Sir Don Curry stated that the controls that are considered necessary for food safety in this country should also be enforced on imported food. In particular, it is for the Government to ensure that there are the strictest controls, meeting the highest international standards, on illegal meat imports.
The third reason that we need clearer food labelling is that, at present, consumers are being misled. For example, it is possible to import lambs to the UK from France, slaughter them in the UK and label the result "Product of Britain". Pork that has been imported from Denmark and then packaged in the UK may also be called "Product of Britain". Butter churned in England using milk imported from Belgium should not, supposedly, be labelled "English", but it can lawfully be described as "produced in England from milk". Norwegian salmon that has been smoked in Scotland should not, supposedly, be called "Scottish", but it can lawfully be described as "salmon smoked in Scotland". At present, producers of imported meat can lawfully use the Union flag on packaging to imply that the product is British when it is not. In addition to the Union flag, phrases such as "Great British recipes" may be used on the packaging - for example, on imported pork - again implying that the meat is British when it is imported.
The fourth reason for clearer labelling is the position of British farmers and farming. In recent years, the farming sector in this country has seen the worst crisis for perhaps two generations. When the Curry commission was first set up by the Government to examine the future of farming, its remit included advising the Government on how to ensure that the farming and food sector contributes to a thriving and sustainable rural economy, as well as advancing environmental, economic, health and animal welfare goals. One of the key links in achieving those goals is the role of consumers, and in its final report the commission stated:
"The key objective of public policy should be to reconnect our food and farming industry: to reconnect farming with its market and the rest of the food chain; to reconnect the food chain and the countryside; and to reconnect consumers with what they eat and how it is produced."
At the heart of my Bill is the aim of empowering consumers. There is an intimate relationship between the buying decisions of consumers on the one hand and our continuing to have a farmed landscape that the public can enjoy on the other. However, no consumer can make a proactive decision to support domestic production without clear information.
Consumers may wish to exercise their choice in various ways. Their choices might reflect the desire to purchase food that is produced to our standards of production and animal welfare, or, by buying local food, to reduce fossil fuel emissions by reducing the long-distance transportation of food. Consumers may wish to buy imported food from specific countries, or to avoid doing so. Whatever consumers' desires, they cannot make informed choices without accurate information at the point of sale, and that requires clear food labelling. My Bill will require clear labelling of the country of origin. If food has been processed or packaged in a country other than the country of origin, details of the country of origin will be marked on the label in no less prominent a manner than the details of where the food has been processed or packaged. Where animal welfare standards for the production of food are lower than in this country, a reference to that fact should appear on the label.
I should make it clear that my Bill contains no proposals to restrict the legal import of foodstuffs, or in any other way to restrict competition. Such measures would be likely to infringe international trading agreements and European Union law. Under existing EU arrangements, the labelling of the country of origin is already required for fresh fruit and vegetables and, in the light of the BSE crisis, for beef. Under EU law, the so-called "promotion" of food from a particular country is not permitted, but the relevant EU directive itself requires an indication of the place of origin of a good if failure to give such an indication might mislead a purchaser to a material degree about its true origin.
The clear labelling of the country of origin for all food, as my Bill proposes, offers equal treatment to all producers. In fact, it is logically impossible to suppose that providing greater transparency to consumers in a given marketplace can be said to favour one product over another. Providing more accurate information to potential buyers and sellers simply improves the operation of that market. None the less, if the happy consequence of greater transparency and more accurate information is that more consumers choose to buy food produced in Britain, I shall be very pleased, as will many farmers and food producers in this country. That is not the same as promotion, which is a matter for individuals and businesses.
In that respect, I pay special tribute to the Budgen's supermarket group. While I was visiting the Budgen's store in Harleston in my constituency, the chief executive, Mr. Martin Hyson, explained to me the company's policy of stocking only British meat. I also pay tribute to Waitrose, which has a policy of selling only British beef, pork and chicken.
Sadly, not all supermarkets follow those excellent examples. Many habitually use their near-monopoly power to screw down on suppliers in a way that I believe is against the public interest. A food manufacturer recently told me about another company he knows of, which supplies major supermarkets in the UK. One division of that company had a turnover of £400 million, yet made a profit of only £150,000. In other words, for every £2,666 of turnover, the company made a profit of £1 - a profit margin of just three-eightieths of 1 per cent.
When it is scarcely viable to be a food producer for the major supermarkets, the temptation to cut corners grows, which may lead directly to food scares and other problems. The ruthless behaviour of many supermarkets forces suppliers to search out, at all costs, the cheapest possible source of every ingredient, almost regardless of the long-term consequences for animal welfare, the environment, food safety, and the future of British farming. Restraining the excessive power of the supermarkets is outside the scope of my Bill, but I believe that providing consumers with the accurate information that they need to make informed choices is a step in the right direction.
There are some signs of progress. The National Pig Association promotes the quality standard mark for British pork, which is useful to consumers. The little red tractor mark, which the National Farmers Union originally developed in conjunction with the Government, is another useful measure, although it could do more. In fact, the mark does not indicate definitively that food is British produced, but shows only that the food complies with British standards.
My Bill would take matters a step further. I very much hope that British consumers, armed with better information from clearer food labels, will choose to support domestic production and thereby to support higher animal welfare standards, British farmers and the sustaining of a farmed landscape in this country.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Richard Bacon, Mr. Frank Roy,
Mr. Kevan Jones, Mr. Keith Simpson, Mr. A. J. Beith, Angus
Robertson, Mr. Alan Williams, Alistair Burt, Mr. Stephen Pound, Ms
Candy Atherton, Mr. David Ruffley and Sir Nicholas Winterton.