Food Labelling

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:47 pm on 5 May 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Shadow Minister, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 8:47, 5 May 2004

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, for raising this issue again in your Lordships' House. He is certainly an example of a campaigner. He has raised this issue time and again. But I wonder whether by now he feels a sense of frustration at the lack of progress in this area.

Certainly, on looking back at the debates in your Lordships' House in 2002 and 2003 in which I have taken part, we have said many of the same things that have been said today: I wonder whether the Minister's response will be similar. If I had had a wish, it might have been that the question posed to Her Majesty's Government asked what steps they have taken to combat misleading food labelling, to which I shall address the substance of my speech.

First, I turn to a few points made by other speakers. I thoroughly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Morris, about the social divide between lower-income families and those that are better off. Perhaps it is clearest when walking down a street with delicatessens, greengrocers, cheese shops and butchers. One knows that one is in a high-income area. I think that a low-income area is known now, colloquially, as a "food desert". There are almost no shops. That can be equally true in rural areas where shops in garages prevail, for which we are thankful. But those shops sell mostly ready meals, confectionery and fresh milk: other fresh food is not available. In many low-income urban areas, we face the same problems. There are no shops that sell fresh food anymore, which is a matter that needs urgently to be addressed. Food planning is not only a matter for the Department of Health but also for the ODPM when it issues planning guidance.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris, also mentioned Sir John Krebs's comments on children's breakfasts and what children were eating as they passed the end of his street. I agree that children's breakfasts, or lack of them, is a matter of concern and I praise those schools which have introduced breakfast clubs. This has proved to be a worthwhile initiative.

Yesterday, in your Lordships' House, the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, hosted a worthwhile meeting with representatives of the Food Standards Agency and I was able to raise with them the issue of local initiatives and their funding. I consider breakfasts clubs in schools to be an initiative which is key to introducing children to good eating habits.

In reply to my question about the funding of local initiatives, the deputy chairman of the Food Standards Agency, Julia Unwin, said that it was at a lamentably low level. If such local initiatives prove worth while but need support, can the Minister say from which pot of money they will receive funding after the one or two years in which they may receive pilot funding? Many initiatives receive pilot funding but, even if they prove extremely worth while, it is difficult to continue with them—and changing the eating habits of children will take a lot longer than a year or two.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Graham, that the establishment of the Food Standards Agency has been a beacon, but I am not sure whether it has succeeded as well as it would wish to on the issue of labelling. I have looked at its website in this regard and I think what I found there bears repeating to your Lordships. Its website asks:

"What do labels tell me?"

The reply is:

"Labels are there to tell you what you are buying".

There is no differentiation in the mind of the Food Standards Agency—nor, as far as I can see, in anyone else's—between the packaging on the food which contains the whole marketing message and the nutritional panel, which is what I believe the Food Standards Agency means.

The website goes on to say:

"The law says the name of a product must not be misleading".

That is not the case because we know that the description "chicken pie", for example, is deeply misleading when it contains only 10 or 15 per cent chicken. If you called it "Gloop-pie with a little chicken in it", that would not be misleading. So the Food Standards Agency needs to tighten up its definition of "label". The agency refers to the nutrition panel whereas the public believe that "label" means the entirety of what they see on the food packaging.

The agency then goes on to ask:

"What should I look for on labels?".

Its reply is:

"Value for money. As well as comparing pack weights, you can use the ingredient list to choose which product you want from the points of view of health, taste and cost".

I do not believe that that is at all the case. I certainly cannot tell from the label what the taste of a product will be like. I agree that cost is clearly indicated in all shops; it is required to be so by law. But the main point is whether the label gives me a good guide to health. No, it does not; it is too complicated. I believe that all noble Lords who have spoken tonight will agree with that. This is an area in which I hope the Minister will be able to give some assurance that a much simpler scheme will be introduced.

Some people have spoken of a red, yellow and green traffic light system, where red is a warning that a food contains high salt, high sugar or high fat levels; yellow is a warning that the food contains a medium level of such ingredients but that if you add it to other food it may result in higher levels in your diet; and green indicates a food that you can eat as much as you like of without any worries.

Under the sub-heading "Freedom of choice", the website says:

"Labels allow you to buy things you like or avoid things you shouldn't eat".

No they do not. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Brookman, and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, for the points they made.

My husband is a coeliac, so I can appreciate the problems the noble Lord highlighted. Although a food product will occasionally be labelled as gluten-free, gluten turns up in the most unexpected places. It turns up in mustard, for instance; often labels do not say so, but mustard can contain wheat. Perhaps more insidious is that when coeliacs are stuck for something to eat, they may turn to chips; they think that as they are made from potatoes, they are a very safe food. However, it is not widely known that many chips are actually coated in flour, which causes coeliacs endless difficulties. So we need labelling to be much more accurate.

Defensive labelling, which says, "This product may contain nuts", is no help to anybody—people need to know whether a product contains nuts or not. The Government urgently need to address labelling which is simply there to avoid prosecution rather than giving information.

In 2003, the National Consumer Council published the extremely good Bamboozled, Baffled and Bombarded—consumers' views on voluntary food labelling. Since its publication, which contained many good recommendations of which I am sure the Minister is aware, what progress have the Government made in implementing those recommendations?

The consumer perspective highlighted by the publication is to do with consumer confusion. It defined, very usefully, the different purposes that food packaging serves at present. It serves to offer advice, guidance, claims, data, logo, a brand name, marketing messages, and so on. We need a much clearer definition of what is expected of the food industry when we talk about labelling. We must define the difference between labelling and nutritional information. Nutritional information is divided into two: a short list, which gives the energy, protein, carbohydrates and fats contained in a product, and a long list, which gives the sugar, saturated fats, fibre and sodium content.

I think that all the requirements in law about labelling on the nutritional panel is now done at an EU level. Part of the Government's job is to lobby at that level for the changes that have been found to be necessary. Of course, the UK is not alone in finding these difficulties. Levels of obesity are rising right across the European Union, so it will need European Union action. It will also need action at a national level. Perhaps there should be a code, such as Defra has for green claims that are false, for inaccurate claims about food.

The Food Standards Agency survey in March this year found that as well as being misled about ingredients, consumers are being misled about terms such as "fresh", "pure", "natural", "traditional", "original", "authentic", "home-made" and "farmhouse". We are well aware of those sorts of terms. They are on almost every product. They make one feel warm and cosy. They do no one a service. Usually, they are covering up food that is far from those things. The most natural, fresh and traditional foods are those that arrive in their prime state and need very little labelling because they are most clearly a sack of potatoes, a chicken or a bag of Brussels sprouts. However, once those have been processed, the division becomes blurred.

In the final minute of my speech, I wish to deal with children's eating habits, which the Government can change only through education, education, education. The topic needs to be back on the curriculum in a big way. School meals must be dealt with and health professionals such as GPs and district nurses should be taught about diets at a fundamental level. The issue of diet is vital for the health of our future generation. I would appreciate it if the Minister would tell us what the Government are doing to educate the future generation.