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Home > Food Labelling > 2008 10-Minute Rule Speech

Better country-of-origin food labelling for British consumers

On 29 October 2008, 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 Speaker, 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.

Mr Speaker, the first occasion on which I sought the leave of the House to introduce a Bill to require clearer labelling of food was in 2004.  I was certainly not the first member to seek to introduce such legislation, and many honourable members across the House have supported the proposition that consumers should have clearer, more accurate and more honest information about the food they buy than is currently required.

Since 2004, the interest in local sourcing of food and local production has grown significantly. The issue of ‘food miles’ has become more prominent in political discussion. And the importance for consumers of higher animal welfare standards has continued to increase. Only this morning on the BBC Radio 4 programme Farming Today, an egg farmer spoke of his continued shift towards free range hens for egg production, because this was what consumers wanted.

Attempts to improve the law continue and, in addition to my own Bill, which has support from Members on all sides of the House, I notice that the honourable member for Warrington South will be seeking leave to bring in her own Food Labelling Bill next week, which I understand focuses mainly on nutrition and health issues. This complements my own Bill which, in addition to providing information about the contents and production standards of food, ensures that information about the country of origin of different foods would be included on labelling.

Consumers should have the information they need to make informed decisions about the food they buy. There is a wide range of issues which may quite rightly be of concern to them in making their purchasing decisions. These include the nutritional and calorific value of food, the salt or fat content, the animal welfare standards under which food is produced, and the country of origin.

Any food labelling regime must seek to address these various concerns.  It is important that all food producers adhere to the same high standards for food labelling and the best way to achieve this is through a statutory framework. 

The Food Labelling Regulations 1996 require food to be marked or labelled with certain requirements such as the name of the food, a list of ingredients, the amount of an ingredient which is named or associated with the food, an appropriate durability indication, any special storage conditions, the name of business and manufacturer and in certain cases, the place of origin, as well as the process used in manufacture and instructions for use.

In July this year the Food Standards Agency has recently updated its guidance on the use of marketing terms such as 'fresh', 'pure' and 'natural' but there was nothing new on country of origin labelling, although the guidance continues to draw attention to Regulation 5 of the 1996 Food Labelling Regulations which requires:

“…particulars of the place of origin or provenance of the food if failure to give such particulars might mislead a purchaser to a material degree as to the true origin or provenance of the food…”

Currently, country of origin labelling must comply with the Food Safety Act 1990 and with the Trade Descriptions Act 1968.  These make it an offence to label any food in a way that falsely describes it or which is likely to mislead as to its nature, substance or quality. However, neither Act defines how much British involvement is required before produce can be sold as British. 

The specific expression “country of origin” is not defined in the Food Labelling Regulations 1996 or in the Food Labelling Directive 2000/13/EC.  However, the approach taken in Section 36 of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 is that, for the purposes of that Act, goods are deemed to have been manufactured or produced in the country where they last underwent a treatment or process resulting in a substantial change. This is likely to include the manufacture of bacon or ham, for example.

However, at present, consumers are being misled. Pork that has been imported from Denmark and then packaged in the UK may be called “Product of Britain”.  The problem can apply to other food products too.  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”.  Slaughtering in this country would count, so that “British lamb” could mean imported lambs slaughtered and packaged in the UK.

Products can be labelled as “produced in the UK” when all the ingredients come from outside the country. There is concern that some companies have taken advantage of these slack regulations and label their products with the Union Jack, accompanied by slogans such as “traditional British food”  or  “great British recipe” when in fact they are not produced in this country.

There is obviously a duty on consumers to read the labels in the first place but there is also a need to prevent labels, presentation and other information being misleading about the product. Country of origin is an element with a particular potential for consumers to be misled.

Clear mandatory country of origin labelling would significantly reduce the risk that consumers making a food purchasing decision should be misled or in practice be unable to use their consumer power to support domestic producers, if that is what they wish to do. 

Country of origin labelling already exists for beef and I believe it should be extended to cover other fresh meat. There are more complex issues in the labelling of processed meat and dairy products, where the sourcing frequently varies. I acknowledge that these issues would need to be considered carefully in Committee.  Modern labelling technology has improved considerably in recent years and I am persuaded that it would be easier for processed food manufacturers to comply with country of origin labelling requirements than in the past, but I acknowledge that processed food does present greater difficulties for labelling than fresh meat.

This morning I was pleased to attend the David Black Memorial Award Breakfast in the House of Lords, celebrating the achievements of the British pig industry despite very difficult conditions in recent years and, particularly, to honour the contribution to the industry of this year’s award winner, Ian Campbell MBE.

I was also pleased to receive a copy of this film, An Inconvenient Trough, made by a group of pig farmers and launched this morning. This is an excellent follow-up to the campaign “Stand by Your Ham”, which last summer featured Winnie the Pig in a stall opposite Downing Street, where she drew thousands of visitors, including many honourable members.

This film draws attention to the conditions facing pig farmers, notably that 70 per cent of the imports of pork and pork products into the United Kingdom are produced to animal welfare standards that would unlawful in this country.

It is in this context that we must look at country of origin labelling. I must emphasise that this is not in order to prevent consumers from buying products from where they wish, but rather to ensure that they are making informed decisions and that they cannot be misled.

Government can also do more. The pig industry has produced its own Quality Standard Mark for Pork, and for other pork products such as bacon and ham. This Mark shows that the meat has been produced to higher animal welfare standards. Yet 76 per cent of bacon served in Whitehall departments and 39 per cent of pork served in Whitehall departments is only produced to the lower EU standards, not to the higher standard of the Quality Standard Mark.

I make no secret of the fact that I wish all consumers would buy British meat all the time. But achieving this is a matter for consumers and it is not the purpose of my Bill. 

I would just like to see a fair deal for British farmers and to ensure they are given the chance to compete fairly with overseas products; that the lower animal welfare standards often applied to imported production are clearly marked for consumers  as  well as the higher standards of domestic production; and that farmers are able to engage the consumer in supporting the high standards of food safety, animal welfare and environmental care that lie at the heart of British farming and cannot be undermined by misleading labelling of competing products. A vital part of facilitating this shift in priorities would be to ensure that this country has far more rigorous and transparent food labelling. I commend this Bill to the House.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Richard Bacon, Keith Hill, Mr. Keith Simpson, Andrew Mackinlay, Mr. David Heath, Mr. Stephen O’Brien, Mr. David Ruffley, Angus Robertson, Mr. Roger Williams and Sir Nicholas Winterton.

See also:
Arrow PARLIAMENT: MP seeks better labelling for food
Arrow SPEECHES: Better food labelling for British consumers