Food Labelling

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:19 pm on 5 May 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Graham of Edmonton Lord Graham of Edmonton Labour 8:19, 5 May 2004

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Morris. He speaks from the heart, from his experience and from his roots. I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Roper, in his place because he has the same kind of background as outlined by my noble friend Lord Morris. I declare an interest as a consultant to the Co-operative Group. Like my noble friend Lord Morris, I shall refer to certain events.

My noble friend Lord Morris mentioned 1844. Those who know the movement and the Rochdale pioneers will also pay tribute to the Rochdale principles. One of them was to have no adulterated goods. It took me a long time to find out what "adulterated" means. I did not believe it was a dirty word, but adulteration, watering down, giving tea and sugar something they should not have, something impure, was the bane of the working classes in times past. One of the principles on which the co-operative movement was started was to abolish adulteration.

I take the view that, in this short debate, we are taking part in a campaign to raise the awareness of the public to the dangers if we do not change our eating habits. Years ago one of the jobs that I had in the Co-operative Group was as education secretary in a society called Enfield Highway. I was very proud and very happy. That was in the early 1950s and living in Hertford was a man called Caspar Brook. He was the main inspirer for the creation of the Consumers' Association and the magazine Which?

I like to believe that I was in at the beginnings of the stirrings of the movement which still tries to alert people. One of my jobs in organising conferences and providing speakers for the Women's Guild and other organisations was to look at what was then a new-fangled idea called consumer education. Not many people did that. I had to arrange exhibitions and demonstrations concerned with meat and I arranged for the local Co-operative Group butcher to explain that one can go into a shop and be lackadaisical or one can know what to look for and what to ask for. Then the fruit and vegetable manager would talk about fruit and vegetables and their value in a diet.

My noble friend Lord Morris quite rightly paid proper attention to the work of the co-operative movement which, for a long time, was alone in pioneering such care and concern about what we ate. That is not still the case, as most of the Co-operative Group's competitors, whom I shall not mention for obvious reasons—I do not want to give them any advertising—have learned over the past 50 years that, besides taking money over the counter, there is value to a commercial organisation in paying attention to how it buys and what it sells, which is very good.

In this place I am experienced in realising and sensing that we serve a purpose. When I returned from New Zealand six years ago, I had a DVT, which I had not heard of—thrombosis. Along with the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, I spoke in a debate—the Minister was the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. I am satisfied that it was as a result of my alertness and awareness that the House created a Select Committee chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and upon which sat such eminent people as my noble friend Lord Winston, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, and others. That committee reported.

Only in the past few days I have read in the newspapers that airlines recognise that the seat pitch—the distance between the seats—which under the Warsaw convention need be only 26 inches, but traditionally was 28 inches, now has to be 31 and 32 inches. They are now voluntarily moving the seats. I notice that British Airways is being very good. In recognising those who seek to take it to court for dereliction in respect of deaths occurring from this condition it has moved some way to make matters less difficult. I make that point.

I see my noble and good friend Lord Brookman in his place. He helped to initiate me. I went to a reception on the terrace a few months ago to listen to a group I had never heard of called the Celiac gluten-free movement. I have a store of other experiences. I think the lady was from Wolverhampton. She told me about the blight on her life borne out of a condition over which she literally had no control and of her need to be careful. She taught me a little more about reading labels. That is what the debate is about.

I have made a list of other groups that I have attended besides the groups in the House for DVT, diabetes, prostate, dystrophy and heart. I attend them all because I have conditions from which I suffer, survive and manage within the context of them all. The point I want to make is that as we grow older and become more susceptible to the onset of serious conditions we need to be very careful about what we eat.

I am very pleased that my noble friend has raised this issue, which allows us to say a few words in support. I think the establishment of the Food Standards Agency was a beacon in this respect. I do not claim credit for party or for organisation. There has been a gradual movement and recognition over the years. Certainly, more and more people recognise that one can very easily make a wrong purchase when one goes to the supermarket or to the market.

One phenomenon these days is to walk down the street and find that everyone seems to have a sore ear. What they are doing is listening to their mobiles. When one goes into a supermarket one finds a lot of people not simply grabbing stuff off the shelves but actually looking at the labels. From the information I have read, I am very taken by the fact that there are the big four and then there are the little four. The big four, as far as content is concerned, is information relating to energy, protein, carbohydrate and fat. One needs to understand what the ingredients are and to be able to read them. The others are sugars, saturates, fibre and sodium.

Very often one finds that manufacturers in a misleading way give on a label only the big four and not the little four. They pick and choose. The discerning shopper is the person who is prepared to spend a little time and sometimes perhaps a little money.

When I went to my diabetic clinic and saw the dietician, she drew my attention to a fact. She asked, "Do you like marmalade?" I said, "Yes, I like marmalade". She asked, "What kind do you have?" Of course I said, "The Co-op's if I can get it". She said, "Well, you know marmalade is made especially for diabetics". I did not know that. I was glad I was told. Therefore, even if sometimes I do not eat it, I know that it is there.

I have another illustration. My family has always drunk evaporated milk. It is a tradition. Evaporated milk is very heavy on fat, but most manufacturers have light evaporated milk or an evaporated milk that has been produced in such a way that the difficult contents are marginally reduced.

There is a lot of advice about. I am of course delighted at the part that the co-operative movement has played and is playing in these matters. No one will achieve a breakthrough. The figures that my noble friend Lord Morris gave for obesity are compelling and real. No one has an interest in maintaining that—even the people who produce the products, such as crisps, fizzy drinks and so on. They do not have an interest in watching the purchasers of their goods die earlier than they need. It needs a concerted campaign.

I know that the Government—as well as many others; but I talk about this Government, of whom I am proud to be a part—have a responsibility to support both agencies and organisations whose job it is to make people alert and aware. Here endeth the first lesson.