Food Labelling

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:31 pm on 5 May 2004.

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Photo of Lord Fyfe of Fairfield Lord Fyfe of Fairfield Labour 8:31, 5 May 2004

My Lords, first, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester on initiating this debate on this vital subject. Before it escapes my mind, my noble friend Lord Graham referred to diabetic marmalade and diabetic foods in general. I have the misfortune to suffer from that disease, and that specific diabetic food is not recommended, because it can have a devastating impact on some parts of the anatomy. Only some suffer from that: my noble friend Lord Graham obviously does not.

I was chairman of the Co-operative Group and its predecessor, the Co-operative Wholesale Society, for about 11 years. Clearly, anything that I have to say in my brief comments this evening will focus on the co-operative movement's involvement in healthy food and eating of recommended diets.

I suggest that there are three key ways in which retail activities can support broader nutritional strategies and therefore encourage activity to address obesity. Those include the formulation of own brands—especially, in this case, Co-op brand products—and how those products are marketed. That is a broad area that may encourage proper product labelling, merchandising and advertising. In addition, the Co-op's role within communities enables supportive nutritional education via stores in the form of labelling, leaflets and websites in the various communities within which we operate. Clearly, education has a major part to play by providing information on the website, in pamphlets and leaflets in stores and by other means of communication.

My noble friends Lord Morris and Lord Graham referred to the dangers, and I shall not elaborate on them, except by stating that obesity contributes to a number of life-threatening diseases. Indeed, diabetes is now being diagnosed in many adolescents, with a devastating impact on the remainder of their lives. So it has an impact at an early stage that endures for a considerable time—indeed, until their demise.

In 1995, the Co-operative movement challenged its suppliers to reduce the amount of fat and salt in its own-brand products to help to achieve nutritional taskforce targets. Progressively, that has reduced levels of both in a range of products, with that work continuing. But it is difficult for a single retailer to make an impact because products are geared to maximum production, as I am sure your Lordships will appreciate, and producing one-off products for a specific retailer often does not make sense for a major manufacturer.

In addition to its standard range, the Co-op provides a wide range of healthier alternative products. The clear, distinctive logo helps consumers to choose healthier alternatives. Strict nutritional criteria apply to those products, supported by on-pack claims. A maximum of 3 per cent fat applies to all ready-made meals in the range.

There is still a long way to go on honest labelling. There is a clear need for comprehensive and well-presented labelling that sets the standard for the industry. Calorie and salt content are indicated on the front of all Co-op brand label products. No other retailer does that at present. However, I am confident that the experience of the Co-operative movement will help to encourage other retailers to follow that path. Products are described as having high, medium or low fat content, but that can be extremely confusing. The noble Lord, Lord Morris, referred to that fact. What precisely is low fat? In some extreme cases, it could mean around 50 per cent fat content.

The Co-op has highlighted dietary issues through public campaigns, identifying sources of poor diet and opportunities for improvement. Our 1997 report, The Plate of the Nation, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Morris, raised the nature of diet generally and intensified debate on the topic. That was followed by The Lie of the Label, which addressed a range of labelling activities that might hinder consumer appreciation of the nature, composition and nutritional make-up of products. It also identified clear approaches to support positive steps that provide clear consumer information on labels, helping them to make informed choices that support their dietary needs. The expression "informed choices" is important, as it highlights the deficiency of proper, honest and simple advice on food content. Let us be straightforward: it is sensible, not patronising, to say that that often applies, perhaps to a harassed housewife with several children, operating on a budget and with neither the time, energy nor sometimes the inclination to understand food labels.

In 2002, we advocated a bolder route to the provision of such information through labelling, following consumer research into the value that they gained from nutrition information on many different types of pack and different brands. As outlined in The Lie of the Label II, that identifies potential opportunities for development of labelling formats that would provide greater clarity of information for consumers, therefore supporting improved access to a more balanced diet.

The Co-op Group has recently acquired the convenience store chain Alldays, adding 600 stores to its portfolio—a good acquisition. We found that Alldays concentrated on newspapers, tobacco, cigarettes and a high proportion of foods that could not be regarded as particularly healthy. It is a mammoth task to convert those stores into ones that have some consideration for dietary points. We actively support the Department of Health initiative to encourage people to eat a minimum of five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. One might say that that is common sense, but there are still substantial depths of ignorance about food.

When I reread what I had typed out this afternoon, frankly some of it sounded a bit holier than thou. I would not want it to be interpreted as being holier than thou. I do not want to sound in the least sanctimonious or self-righteous when I talk about the Co-operative Group's initiatives in this field. They contribute greatly to the nation's health and to its economy. Neither do I want to see us become a nanny state and adopt attitudes such as, "the man in Whitehall knows best". We do not need to attack that philosophy, because it does not exist. I hope that it never does exist, but we could attack it through better information and education.

I am of a sedentary disposition, despite in my younger days playing a respectable game of golf and an average game of squash. My noble friend Lord Morris referred to the importance of exercise, and I was going to refer also to the disposal of a number of playing fields over the past few years, which is really depressing news. All kinds of sport, individual sports and team sports, should be encouraged so it should be a dual attack on bad health, based on good exercise and a sensible diet.

Finally, on a domestic point, our catering facilities in this House might well be reviewed from time to time to try to ensure that they encourage your Lordships to have a healthy diet.