Food Labelling

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:04 pm on 5 May 2004.

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Photo of Lord Morris of Manchester Lord Morris of Manchester Labour 8:04, 5 May 2004

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they will take to combat misleading food labelling and to promote healthy eating, especially in children.

My Lords, my principal purpose this evening is to draw attention to the serious health hazards of misleading food labelling—not least the avoidable chronic illnesses and preventable disabilities it can inflict on children—and the urgent need for stronger safeguards.

Noble Lords know of my interest in chronic illness and disability as the first Minister for Disabled People from 1974–79 and before then, as a Private Member, the author and promoter of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. That interest alone makes the health hazards of misleading food labelling an issue of deep concern to me. It explains, too, my work to reduce the daunting difficulties—and dangers—faced by over 2 million visually impaired people in trying to cope with labelling that totally ignores their existence.

The presence of my noble friend Lord Warner is most welcome. He was a promising young official at the then Department of Health and Social Security when I was a Minister. His duties often involved him in work on ministerial speeches. Now he makes them and I much look forward to hearing him wind up the debate with all his customary care, courtesy and social commitment.

To be fair to him—and not everyone is always fair to Ministers—he has direct ministerial responsibility only in the Department of Health, but in answering questions in your Lordships' House he must answer for the Government as a whole including—which is never easy, even for its own Ministers—the termites of the Treasury. Many departments are involved in issues that will be addressed in this debate. One is the energy imbalance that results from eating too much and exercising too little, in which the Departments for Education and Skills, and for Culture, Media and Sport—no less than the Department of Health—have an interest.

All three departments were involved in the launch last week of the Government's major new "keep fit, not fat" campaign for increased physical activity to tackle what was described as:

"the 'couch potato' culture now consuming the nation".

It was stated also that:

"physical inactivity and obesity cost the country more than £10 billion a year".

And there was a call for:

"immediate action to halt an epidemic of chronic diseases".

Yet some 200 school sports grounds have been sold off even since the Government introduced measures specifically designed to halt sales in December 1998. Ministerial consent was refused in only six cases. Thousands of playing fields have gone. London alone has lost the equivalent of seven Hyde Parks of green recreational space since 1989, while Sport England rarely uses its virtual veto over playing field sales.

That is just one reason for growing public concern about the want of a properly co-ordinated and credible response to the "keep fat, not thin" way of life that misleading food labelling now so powerfully encourages. Another reason for that concern is that, while the Chief Medical Officer rightly described childhood obesity in his annual report of 2002 as,

"a public health time-bomb", waiting to explode, its prevalence has continued to rise and the time-bomb ticks dangerously on. Meanwhile teachers and parents alike ask why the weighing and health checks that used to be a regular feature of school life no longer happen. Members of Parliament ask how it is that Finland, which in the 1980s had an obesity rate twice as high as ours, now has a rate of 11 per cent compared to Britain's 22 per cent. Religious leaders ask why policy-making so often assumes that low-income families have the same freedom as others to choose healthy eating. And people generally ask why so many policy decisions are taken ad hoc and are seemingly unrelated to an overall strategy. Are we, some ask, creating, as it were, an "ad hocracy" where policy is made on the hoof?

I have two other interests in this debate. Within days of entering the House of Commons, 40 years ago, I joined Fred Peart at the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food as his Parliamentary Private Secretary and stayed with him there until, in 1968, he became Leader of the House. In those four years I learned much about food policies that still influences my thinking today. Time was, not long before then, when we had a Minister of Food with a seat in the Cabinet. Now food no longer appears even in any ministerial title and that, I fear, is one reason why proper co-ordination seems lacking.

My other interest in the debate, which I declare with pride, is that of lifelong membership of the Co-operative movement. I have held its highest elective office as President of the Co-operative Congress and chaired, in 2001–02, the Review Board that created the Co-operative Group (CWS) Limited—the world's biggest consumer co-operative. Having just read the group's annual report for 2003, I rejoice now in the many achievements of its first two full years.

Two other former Congress Presidents are here with me this evening: my good and noble friends Lord Graham and Lord Fyfe. They will be mindful, as I am, that several of our predecessors in that distinguished office also served in your Lordships' House. I think the earliest of them—his identity still surprises some noble Lords—was the Earl of Rosebery who presided over the Co-operative Congress held in Glasgow in 1890, four years before becoming Liberal Prime Minister.

I know my noble friends Lord Graham and Lord Fyfe share my admiration for the lead which our movement—notably the Co-operative Group—takes in protecting shoppers from unscrupulous food labelling. That leadership reflects a tradition of ethical trading that goes all the way back to its birth in Rochdale in 1844. It was in response to grossly unethical trading that the Co-operative movement was born. And the abuse of consumers by unscrupulous food labelling today, although far more subtle, is hardly less culpable than that perpetrated in Rochdale 160 years ago.

Among the damaging health effects of misleading consumers about the contents of the food they buy, none is more worrying than the relentless rise in the prevalence of obesity. Data from the Department of Health show that more than half of UK adults are now officially overweight or obese. In the past decade obesity has doubled. It now affects more than 15 per cent of adults, 10 per cent of 6 year-olds and 20 per cent of 15 year-olds. On average it cuts life expectancy by nine years and 50 per cent of people now obese have at least one associated health problem: heart disease, stroke, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, degenerative joint diseases and some cancers. If the current trend continues, one quarter of the population will be obese by the end of the decade.

In a recent article Sir John Krebs, who chairs the Food Standards Agency, wrote:

"The kids on their way to school at the end of my road in Oxford are eating their breakfast as they go: a can of cola, a large confectionery bar and a bag of crisps. There couldn't be a more graphic illustration of the problem with many children's diets: too much sugar, salt and fat and too many empty calories".

Children are, he says,

"bombarded with messages encouraging them to eat foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar", and, he says,

"nothing is not an option in facing the challenge this presents".

The Co-operative movement did not wait for any official prompting to act in exposing unethical and unscrupulous practices in the promotion and advertising of food. Over the past seven years—starting before the FSA existed—it has published a trilogy of reports: Lie of the Label, Lie of the Label 2 and Blackmail. Taken together they constitute the most devastating critique of deceptive and dishonest food labelling yet published.

The impact of the trilogy on informed and influential opinion testifies to its status. The first two reports won the support of the Consumers Association in Food labels, the hidden truth and in the FSA's Consumer attitudes to food standards. Their impact was further increased by NOP research and the report of a survey of the marketplace which quotes a label bearing the legend:

"80 per cent fat free crisps".

Shown the label, 61 per cent of NOP's respondents said it was a low-fat product. In fact, it was almost all fat and, when told the truth, 80 per cent said that such claims should be unlawful.

The trilogy as a whole won praise from my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, then a health Minister. He praised also the extent to which the Co-operative movement's precepts were matched by performance, as exemplified by its clear and comprehensive labelling and commitments:

"to avoid direct marketing and advertising to children of products high in fat, sugar or salt (where products contain above 20, 10 or 1.25 grams per 100 grams respectively);

"not to advertise high-fat, sugar and salt products in specific children's titles or adjacent to children's pages in newspapers;

"not to give free samples, or promote by demonstration in stores, any high-fat, sugar and salt products aimed specifically at children;

"not to use high-profile character merchandising in stores to promote high-fat, sugar and salt products aimed at children;

"not to display child-targeted products which are high in fat, sugar or salt at supermarket checkouts, where children may exert 'pester power' while queuing with parents to pay for grocery shopping;

"and clear labelling of dental health warnings on high-sugar products, such as sweets and soft drinks, across all appropriate Co-op brand goods".

All of these and other Co-operative commitments—and I am grateful to Dr Christine Humphreys of the Co-operative Group for updating me on them and for all her other help—featured in the FSA's 2003 options paper as elements that could be adopted in a code of practice for responsible promotion of food to children and parents.

For the good of child health, it is crucially important for food labelling to be clear, readily understandable and governed by effective legislation. But that is not happening now, and shoppers are left in the dark about how much fat, sugar and salt are in the products they eat and give to their children. Yet many household names among the producers of chocolate, sweets and soft drinks now hide the truth, making any meaningful attempts to achieve a balanced diet impossible.

Hiding the truth is one of seven "deadly sins" documented in the Co-operative critique of food labelling. Others are: the use of meaningless terms to enhance a product's name, such as "wholesome" and "natural"; clever photography to mislead shoppers about actual contents; over-claims such as dried pasta "free from preservatives" when none is allowed; detail of what is not in products instead of what is; and the use of poor contrast and small font, making important ingredient information hard to find and read even for people with 20:20 vision and mocking the plight of the visually impaired.

Taken together, these economies with the truth alone make a formidable case for more effective legislation. Before saying any more about sinning, however, I turn to a striking example of virtue: namely, Britain's "first" in creating the technology to Braille the packaging of retail goods. While, as we have seen, many strive hard to hide vital information from sighted people, this Co-operative achievement is now making it clearly available to people who are blind.

The new technology was recognised by many prestigious awards. It has since been shared with the industry as a whole, facilitating the application of Braille to an ever-increasing range of consumer goods. This also demonstrated that, while the development process was long, time-consuming and costly, it was not undertaken for commercial gain but rather as an expression of social responsibility and human concern.

This debate was thought likely to take place close to publication of the Government's Food and Health Action Plan, which was expected from the Department of Health last week. It has been postponed and I am sure that my noble friend will want to explain why and let us know as much as can now be said about the document. I have sought to show by detailing the widely practised dishonesties still permitted by labelling legislation that stronger legislation is urgently needed to protect consumers. While postponement of the plan's publication is extremely disappointing, at least it enables contributors to this debate to make their suggestions for what it should include, and I am sure there will be no shortage of them.

For my part, I hope most of all that the Government will be seen to have been listening to the Consumers Association, the National Consumer Council—chaired with such distinction by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, for six years—and other widely respected bodies, as well as by ethical traders like the Co-operative Group which show, day by day, that it is not incompatible with commercial success. I am reminded this evening of Mark Twain's remark that,

"a lie can be half way round the world before truth has got his boots on".

I hope soon to see the Government challenging that advantage with stronger safeguards in their action plan. I know that my noble friend will do his best to sustain that hope in this debate.