British Agriculture and Food Labelling

Part of Opposition Day — [6th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 8:53 pm on 24th February 2009.

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Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South 8:53 pm, 24th February 2009

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am glad to have caught your eye, given the number of Labour Back Benchers who want to speak. Like the Minister, I want to speak about two aspects of the motion: the specifics of the case for mandatory labelling, and the wider and larger issue of food security. My hon. Friend Rob Marris has quite properly raised the subject in every Member's contribution, so I want to declare that I will address that issue.

It is important to acknowledge that across the world, virtually every political party in every Government has attempted to shelter behind a misleading definition of country of origin. In some respects, the origins of that definition are to be found in the rules of the Codex Alimentarius Commission and the WTO. That definition describes the country of origin as the last place of substantial change.

The public are well aware that if, for instance, someone buys a Vauxhall car that is claimed to have been made in Britain, it should not surprise them if the spark plugs in the car come from somewhere else. That would not mean that the substantial change in the construction of the car did not make it British. However, if a product such as a Cumberland sausage is marketed as a British Cumberland sausage, the substantial change, as far as the public is concerned, is not to be found in the origins of the recipe or the origins of the assembly, but in the origins of the meat.

We have allowed ourselves to be caught in a confusion which is exploited by those parts of the international food processing chain which seek to dominate and exploit food markets, rather than to pursue sustainable food markets. The misleading of the public is incorporated into the global rules that are creating much of the chaos and food insecurity that we urgently need to address. It is wrong to blame a Labour Government for 10 years of inactivity and an absence of progress.

The absence of progress goes back at least 42 years. I do not blame the Minister for not being aware of that, as it was clearly before she was born. In 1966—the last time an English football team won the World cup—the Food Standards Committee was asked to examine the abuse of the words "fresh", "natural" and "pure". In the discussions and deliberations that followed, from that time until last year, the matter was bounced backwards and forwards in a series of consultations that sought to secure a voluntary agreement on the meaning of the words.

In 1987, a trading standards survey looked at how supermarkets and shops were treating those labels. It found that 79 per cent. of the shops were downright misleading and 11 per cent. were extremely dubious. Only one in 10 of the marketing claims had any truth in them. That illustrates the difficulty with the voluntary path. It has taken a prodigious amount of time to get next to nowhere. We must recognise the urgency of the matter, not only because the public have a right to know, but because outside the House there is a drive and desire on the part of the public to shop ethically and sustainably where they can. In many cases that means a relocalisation of their food agenda. I welcome that, but we should be aware how far we are from such a process.

I shall refer to two reports. The first was produced at the beginning of last year by Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming. It is called "Ethical Hijack" and catalogues the systematic attempt to mislead the public with claims that are not true. Earlier I mentioned farmers markets. There was a case last year arising from the fact that Heinz introduced a soup called farmers market soup, even though none of the ingredients had come from a farmers market.

When that was challenged at the Advertising Standards Authority, the case failed. It was claimed that the contents came from farmers, and that the product was being brought to market, so technically it could be called farmers market soup. That did not equate with the terms as they would be understood by the public. Real definitional ambiguities are being exploited by those responsible for the labelling in order to deceive the public. It is an act of marketing deception.

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