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British agriculture and food labelling

This speech was given in the House of Commons on 24 February 2009 as part of the debate on British agriculture and food labelling.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): Last November, the Minister, who is unfortunately not in her place, presented the David Black memorial award at the British Pig Executive breakfast on the Terrace, where some hon. Members were present. It went to Ian Campbell for his distinguished service to the pig industry.

In November 2006, the award was presented to my constituent, Philip Richardson, a distinguished farmer, who has made a big contribution to the pig industry over many years—some hon. Members know about that contribution. A few months ago, I was shocked to hear on “Farming Today” at 5.45 am the sound of Mr. Richardson’s voice as he declared that he was leaving the pig sector.

My constituent’s farm had 350 breeding sows. Some hon. Members know that a breeding sow produces, on average, a couple of litters a year of 10 progeny each. The 350 breeding sows therefore produced some 7,000 progeny a year. That puts into perspective the problems that pig farmers face when they lose 20 per animal. That does not sound like an enormous amount of money to lose, but when it is multiplied by the number of piglets produced, it suddenly becomes a six-figure sum. I was shocked to hear my constituent’s comments because he was one of the first farmers I met when I became Member of Parliament for South Norfolk and he has made an enormous contribution to the industry, as recognised by the award that the Minister’s predecessor, Lord Rooker, presented to him only two years ago.

That is only one indication of what has happened in the industry in the past 10 years, during which we have not had the protection—perhaps “protection” is the wrong word and I should say that we have not given consumers the information that compulsory country of origin labelling would provide. I believe that such labelling would have resulted in a greater market share for British producers. The Minister said that the use of the Union flag is known to be a successful marketing device.

I was pleased that, at the Oxford farming conference in January, the Secretary of State said:

“Under current European regulations, a product’s country of origin is the place where it underwent its last significant process. But this can hide where it really came from.  A pork pie made in Britain from Danish pork can legitimately be labelled as a British pork pie. That’s a nonsense, and it needs to change.”

That sounded remarkably familiar. Indeed, it could have been lifted from a speech that my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) made many years ago when he introduced a private Member’s Bill on the subject. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), I tried to introduce a Bill—most recently, last October and before that, in 2004—along the same lines. I welcome the fact that the Government are now on the same page in recognising that labelling is important and that it contributes to better consumer information. However, I cannot understand their reluctance to take on—or at least argue the case with—the Commission more forcefully than they have done.

It is important to nail one thing clearly. It is logically impossible to suppose that providing greater transparency to consumers in a given market could, in itself, favour one product over another. It would not do that; what it would do is improve the operation of the market. Personally, I hope that that market improvement would occur through more consumers, knowing the accurate origins of the food, choosing to buy British-produced food. I make no bones about that; indeed, it is one of the reasons why I would like clearer food labelling.

However, clearer food labelling might not have that result. There might be people who wish to buy Italian salami or French bread. In the days of apartheid, people avoided, for perhaps good reasons, buying South African apples or oranges, which were clearly labelled. They avoided buying them because they wanted to express a consumer choice, and they were entitled to do that. Just after the Berlin wall came down, there were people—I was one of them—who sought out eastern European gherkins to try to support our brothers and sisters in Poland. Having rather let them down in the second world war and left them behind the iron curtain for 50 years, we needed to do what we could to support their growing markets. I made a conscious decision to seek out Polish products in the early ’90s. The point is that consumers ought to have a choice.

The Government’s voluntary approach has not succeeded and it is not going to succeed. I was talking to a DEFRA official recently who seemed to wallow in his powerlessness. He said, “Oh, it’s occupied ground, there’s nothing we can do.” I say to the Minister—she is not in her place now, but I hope that she reads this debate afterwards—that if she cannot get the right advice, she needs to get new advice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury said, it is notoriously true—of both lawyers and economists—that if someone cannot get the advice that they want, they should find a new lawyer. That is what the Government did over the Iraq war, so why can they not do it over food labelling? They should find the right advice, get in the lead and push hard in the European Commission.

There is now much more support for such moves in Europe than there was. I was over in Brussels with the chairman of the British Pig Executive just last June, meeting a German Christian Democrat MEP who was interested in exactly that issue and who was pushing for compulsory labelling of country of origin in the European Parliament. Things have moved on, but the Government need to push much harder than they are currently prepared to.

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