On 11 January 2011, 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) (Con): I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Food Labelling Regulations 1996 to provide for information about the country of origin of food to be made available to consumers; and for connected purposes.
I am pleased to invite the House once more to give leave for the introduction of a Bill to promote the clearer labelling of food. The Bill is supported by Members from all parts of the House and its aim is simple: to provide clearer, more accurate and more honest information to consumers about the food that they buy than is currently required. This is my fourth attempt to change the law on food labelling, and I continue to campaign for compulsory country of origin labelling, because I believe that the consensus on the need for a change in the law continues to grow.
Many producers use ambiguous wording such as “Produced in the UK” and slogans such as “Great British Menu”, “British Classic” or “The Nation's Favourite” on packaging, often alongside the Union flag, to imply that their product is British when it is not. When I last raised this issue, I gave the House some of the most egregious examples of misleading packaging, but I will not dwell on those today because there have been developments since my last attempt to change the law.
Recently, several organisations have issued guidance on best practice and codes of conduct on food labelling. The pig meat supply chain task force, which counts the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whom I am pleased to see in his place, as a member, recently announced a voluntary code of practice for the labelling of pork and pork products. It calls for the country of origin of the pork used in pork products to be clearly displayed. That applies to the whole of the pigmeat supply chain. Those welcome standards are hard-edged and meticulous, and take careful aim at ambiguous terms such as “Produced in the UK”, which are still used.
Guidance on origin labelling has been developed by the British Retail Consortium in association with the British Meat Processors Association, the British Hospitality Association, Dairy UK, the Food and Drink Federation and the Business Services Association. The guidance, which aims to ensure that country of origin information at the point of sale is consistent and clear, applies to meat, processed meat products, milk, fresh cream, cheese and butter. It suggests that using British flags, images, icons or landmarks, or any suggestion of British or local origin through slogans such as “British Classic” should be limited to products where the meat originates from the UK. The code suggests that when a voluntary origin declaration is made on composite products such as pies and casseroles, the country of origin of the meat ingredient should be labelled if the meat is considered of primary interest to the consumer or a predominant component of the product.
Those voluntary codes are steps in the right direction, but they are not the end of the journey and there is more to be done. Significant concerns persist about the effectiveness of voluntary agreements, and the demand for mandatory country of origin labelling is growing. Helen Ferrier, the chief science and regulatory affairs adviser for the National Farmers Union, said of the British Retail Consortium's guidance:
“Unless all companies sign up and then consistently stick to their promises, some consumers will still be misled.”
Alice Barnard, the chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, welcomed the guidance and urged food organisations to sign up to its standards, but lamented:
“The code is not mandatory, which would offer further protection still”.
A resolution calling for the mandatory clear labelling of food with its true country of origin received unanimous support at the 2010 annual general meeting of the National Federation of Women's Institutes. Its chair, Ruth Bond, said:
“We know that consumers want to make informed choices and surely it is not right that consumers remain dependent on the goodwill of retailers signing up to a voluntary scheme. Without legislation there is no guarantee that consumers will get the choice and information they are demanding”.
Even signatories to the British Retail Consortium's code recognise the importance of mandatory labelling. Speaking on behalf of Dairy UK, Richard Hollingdale, the sales and marketing director of First Milk, told the all-party group on cheese:
“Although the current legislation requires origin to be included on the pack, in practice consumers can be misled. Our view is that consumer requirements for cheese can only be met by mandatory arrangements that recognise the place of manufacture of the product.”
The director general of Dairy UK, Jim Begg, added:
“We're looking for a simple solution to resolve this issue. You don't need a sledgehammer to crack a nut. But we do think that a mandatory element is necessary to be effective.”
Even Brussels, which has often been cited as a roadblock to progress on country of origin labelling, recognises the need for mandatory rules to be more widely applied. On 16 June 2010 the European Parliament voted to accept draft food labelling legislation that would expand the EU's requirements for country of origin labelling on food to all meat, poultry, dairy products and other single-ingredient foods. Then, on 7 December, EPSCO-the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council-reached a political agreement on draft regulation 16555/10, on food information for consumers. The proposed regulation states:
“The impact assessment of the Commission confirms that origin of meat appears to be the prime concern of consumers. There are other meats widely consumed in the European Union, such as swine, sheep, goats and poultry. It is therefore appropriate to impose the mandatory declaration of origin for those products”.
The agreement also makes provision for the Commission to report, within three years of the regulation coming into force, on the possible extension of compulsory country of origin labelling to other foods, including milk; milk used as an ingredient in dairy products; types of meat other than swine, sheep, goats and poultry; meat used as an ingredient; unprocessed foods; single-ingredient products; and ingredients that represent more than 50% of a food.
The measure will be considered by member states and then the European Parliament, and if adopted it will take effect in three to five years, extending mandatory information about the country of origin to the main types of meat on sale on the British high street. It has the potential to extend to all meats, processed meat products and dairy products.
The proposals have found support from consumer group Which?, which has stated:
“We support the EU proposals and welcome the new voluntary scheme, but we want both to go further. Until food labelling is mandatory, consumers won't get the full picture”.
Mr Meurig Raymond, deputy president of the National Farmers Union, has said:
“We believe there is no reason why mandatory Country of Origin labelling should not be extended to the remaining sectors as well as to the main ingredients of semi-processed foods.”
British farmers are keen for consumers to be well informed about where meat comes from. Information for consumers is not protectionism. I am not in favour of compulsion through legislation except where absolutely necessary, but in this area it is necessary, and there is consumer support for a mandatory country of origin food labelling scheme. We have been waiting years for a workable voluntary scheme, and despite some welcome advances, we are still waiting.
It is now necessary for the Government to accept that honest food labelling requires the force of law, and that is what my Bill would provide. I commend it to the House.
SPEECHES: Country of origin food labelling
SPEECHES: British agriculture and food labelling
SPEECHES: Better country-of-origin food labelling
PARLIAMENT: MP seeks better labelling for food
SPEECHES: Better food labelling for British consumers