Food Labelling

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 5 May 2004.

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Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health) 9:15, 5 May 2004

My lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for raising the issue of misleading food labelling and what we might do to promote healthy eating, especially in children. It gives me the opportunity to outline the considerable programme of work that the Government have engaged in. I shall have to bear with fortitude the fact that I shall never satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. I shall resist the temptation to enter into the area of sex or the US Government's responsibilities in relation to obesity in their country.

I should begin by emphasising that consumers have the right to clear and accurate food labels. That is the basis of the Government's labelling policy and is becoming increasingly important in today's changing world. The range of products on the supermarket shelves is expanding, while the time we spend choosing what to buy is decreasing. I would agree with a number of remarks made by my noble friends that the Co-operative Group has a history of leading the retail industry in terms of food labelling. I am more than happy to recognise its progressive approach in providing vital information to consumers.

Food labels can help us to make informed decisions about the food we eat, particularly in relation to a healthy diet. However, they can help consumers only if the information is provided in a way which the consumer can easily understand, which is not confusing and, above all, not misleading. To help ensure that consumers have access to the labelling information they need, the Food Standards Agency has in place a wide-ranging food labelling action plan, which picks up many of the recommendation of the Consumers' Association report mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer. The plan comprises a mixture of regulatory and voluntary initiatives to tackle the issues that consumers have identified as priorities.

Among the agency's main achievements have been to secure an extension to the European rules on ingredient listing, which will require more detailed information on the content of packaged foods. The new rules will ensure, for example, that the presence of allergens is more clearly indicated. The new legislation on improved labelling of allergens includes nuts and nut products in foods. It will come into force in November 2004 and will make compulsory the breakdown of compound ingredients. The agency has an extensive research programme on allergens and is currently planning a campaign to improve the provision of allergen information in catering establishments.

I cannot answer the question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, on the relationship between nut allergies and gene deficiencies, but I shall look into it and write to her.

I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, that the Food Standards Agency has also published a range of best practice advice to promote labelling transparency. That includes advice on the use of terms such as "fresh", "traditional", "home-made" and so on, as well as advice on country-of-origin labelling. The agency is also in the process of consolidating the UK food labelling regulations to take account of the many national and European changes that have taken place since they were put in place.

We recognise that food labelling has a role to play in enabling consumers to make healthier choices. Currently nutrition labelling on foods is mandatory only when a nutrition claim such as low fat is made. However, according to Food Standards Agency research, more than 90 per cent of consumers think it important to have nutritional information on food products. The Government therefore recommend that such information be provided and, in practice, most pre-packaged foods carry at least some nutrition information because manufacturers choose to make voluntary declarations.

A proposal to amend the current legislation is expected soon. In a discussion paper, the European Commission suggests compulsory nutrition labelling on all pre-packaged foods, to include levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt in the product. Certainly, research by the Food Standards Agency has shown that many consumers find that the current format is difficult to use and that a nutrition labelling format showing the content of a nutrient as high, medium, or low would be welcomed by consumers and help them to make healthier choices.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and other noble Lords raised the issue of why action has been taken on salt reduction, in advance of other substances—I correct myself, I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, who asked the question. Action on salt reduction was taken as a priority following action by the Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health following publication of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition's Salt and Health report in May 2003. That confirmed the strengthening of evidence for action to reduce adult salt intake and for the first time recommended reduced intake levels for children.

It has been suggested that signposting on products, such as a traffic light system, would help consumers quickly identify those foods which are high in fat, salt or sugar and those which are healthier choices. The Food Standards Agency believes that such signposting could be useful and is planning to fund research in this area.

Nutrition and health claims are increasingly common on foods, reflecting the growing public recognition of the importance of the diet to overall health. At present, the general requirements of UK food law, laid down by the Food Safety Act 1990, prohibit misleading claims. However a proposal to regulate nutrition and health claims more closely is currently being discussed in Europe. Simple rules will be set for nutrition claims such as low fat and reduced salt with specific criteria laid down for when these terms can be used. This would see an end to the labelling of products as, for example, 90 per cent fat-free. This type of labelling can mislead by implying that a product is low fat when it is not, as my noble friend Lord Morris pointed out.

For health claims the basic proposal is that these would be allowed following an independent assessment of the supporting evidence by the European Food Safety Authority. Hence if a label said that the product helps maintain a healthy heart then the consumer could have confidence that such a claim is true.

A concern with the use of both nutrition and health claims is the potential to mislead the consumer or undermine healthy eating advice. Such claims emphasise the positive aspects of a food, yet often there may be a negative side that is given less emphasis. For example, a low fat claim on a product high in salt may proclaim only the fat content. The new proposal aims to deal with this by introducing the concept of nutrition profiling where the underlying principle is that claims should not be allowed on products containing defined levels of fat, salt or sugar.

Of course, there are many more aspects to healthy eating than food labelling, and the Government have a wide range of initiatives aimed at promoting healthy eating and increasing the physical activity levels of the population. The prevention of obesity is integral to our public health activities because, as a number of noble Lords have said, obesity has trebled in England in the past 20 years with one in five adults now obese; that is almost 8 million people. Children deserve special attention, as a number of noble Lords have said, because obesity is a problem that requires prevention in childhood. The 2002 health survey for England, quoted by the Chief Medical Officer in his most recent annual report, found that 16 per cent of children were already obese, and that almost a third were either overweight or obese.

The prevention and management of obesity is at the heart of many of the Government's priority areas. The National Service Frameworks outlining action on coronary heart disease and diabetes emphasise preventing and reducing obesity as a key intervention to reduce the overall prevalence of diabetes. Long term prevention is the best course of action, especially in children. The forthcoming National Service Framework for Children will also be addressing obesity as a priority for children's health.

There is a range of actions under way to improve diet and physical activity. I refer to the promotion of breastfeeding and encouraging more women to breastfeed and to continue for at least six months. Breastfeeding in England and Wales increased from 68 per cent in 1995 to 71 per cent in 2000 and there was a significant increase of 9 percentage points in lower social classes.

The new welfare food scheme provides milk and free vitamins to 800,000 low-income families. The reformed scheme will ensure that children in poverty have access to a healthy diet helping them to buy a range of foods, including milk, infant formula, fresh fruit and vegetables. The "five a day" programme, including the national school fruit scheme, aims to increase access to and consumption of fruit and vegetables. Local five a day pilot initiatives were found to increase consumption of fruit and vegetables among the lowest consumers by about one portion a day. A five a day logo has been developed as part of the communications programme to help people recognise the five a day message and introduce consistency in the message in all settings.

In addition, the Department of Health, the Food Standards Agency and the Department for Education and Skills are working together to provide information on diet and nutrition to school children through a number of school based initiatives. This work includes: the funding of a cooking bus that visits schools to promote practical skills among children and their teachers; projects to identify the food-related skills for 14 to 16 year-olds to be covered by the curriculum; showing how schools can operate healthier vending machines that are economically viable; and providing free fruit in schools.

The Department of Health strand of the Government's food in schools programme is made up of eight pilot projects which follow the child through the school day—healthier breakfast clubs, tuck shops, vending machines, lunch boxes and cookery clubs, as well as water provision, growing clubs and the dining room environment. These are outside of, but complement, the formal curriculum.

The Food Standards Agency's activities in this area include leading the cross-government consideration of minimum food and nutrition knowledge and skills of young people, working with the Department for Education and Skills on monitoring school meals standards; and piloting healthier drinks vending in schools.

Central government initiatives demonstrate and test innovation but, when the ideas are provided, I have to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, that putting them into effect is largely down to the local ownership and responsibility of the local agencies.

The Food Standards Agency also encourages the provision of healthier options when eating out—this is important as this sector is increasing—by, for example, contributing to the training of caterers in key nutrition messages.

The Food Standards Agency has also recently been considering the issue of the many ways in which foods are promoted to children. To inform its work on this issue, the agency commissioned a systematic review of the evidence on food promotions and children's diet, carried out by Professor Gerard Hastings from Strathclyde University. The review concludes that advertising to children does have an effect on their preferences, purchasing behaviour and consumption, and that the influence on children's choices is apparent not only between different brands but also between different categories of foods.

The review has not been without its critics and some have challenged its findings. However, the review has undergone, and withstood, a significant amount of independent scrutiny, and its conclusions stand. Following on from the Hastings review and other agency work, the Food Standards Agency is currently consulting on a draft action plan on food promotions and children's diet. The action plan contains a number of recommendations addressed to government, schools, industry and others.

The principle underlying the plan is that it is time to move from debating the issue to determining solutions. This point has been emphasised by much of what has been said in this debate.

As my noble friend said in his opening remarks, one government department cannot tackle obesity on its own. Effective prevention and management requires an integrated, cross-government approach, working with a range of partners on programmes to tackle obesity, improve diet and increase physical activity. The Government recognise that in order to achieve their long-term goals they must also create partnerships.

I remind my noble friends and other noble Lords who have raised the subject of sport and physical activity that the Government's document, Game Plan, set out ideas for driving up physical activity and sports participation from 32 per cent to 70 per cent of the population by 2020.

Earlier this year, Derek Wanless published his report Securing good health for the whole population, which focused on the need to prevent ill health. It contained a powerful analysis of the wider determinants of health including inactivity, diet and nutrition and the significant impact of economic inequalities on people's health.

That is why my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health has launched the "Choosing health?" consultation exercise which will inform the production of the public health White Paper by the summer. The consultation period began at the beginning of March and will run through to the end of May, culminating in publication of the White Paper in the summer. It is looking at the key areas of public health including diet and nutrition, physical activity, obesity.

As part of the three-month consultation on the public health White Paper a conference is also being held tomorrow—"Choosing health: achieving a balance between diet and exercise". I can reassure my noble friend Lord Morris that there is nothing sinister in the postponement of the Department of Health food and health action plan. He will not have to wait much longer and there is certainly a positive flurry of government action; for example, only last week the Chief Medical Officer also launched his report on physical activity, At least five a week. This provides the evidence of impact of physical activity and its relationship to health.

The Government are committed to making a real difference to the health of the population by tackling obesity through improving diet and nutrition and by greater emphasis on exercise. I thank noble Lords for their valuable contributions to this debate.