Food: Labelling

– in the House of Lords at 11:14 am on 11th October 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes Conservative 11:14 am, 11th October 2007

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will take steps to require food labelling in the United Kingdom to indicate harmful food additives by name instead of by E number.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, to ensure a high level of consumer protection, all food additives are tested and evaluated prior to being permitted on the market. While I understand the noble Baroness's desire for the most accessible information to be made available, it is not clear that all consumers would prefer additive names to appear on labels, some of which are long chemical names. E numbers might, therefore, be easier to identify. Moreover, the linkage between the two is easily accessible, for example, on the Food Standards Agency website.

Photo of Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes Conservative

My Lords, I am actually astounded by that reply. Does the Minister really expect people to go shopping with a little handbook so that they can look up these numbers to find out what they denote? Some of these additives are dangerous and many of them are undesirable. It is, therefore, all the more surprising that the FSA has not attempted to do anything about this and I suspect that, once again, the dead hand of the EU is preventing it.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, I understand that the noble Baroness is astounded; however, if a parent knows that an E number will be detrimental to their child's health, it is sometimes easier to look at an E number rather than a name that might have six or seven syllables. In respect of what the FSA has done, noble Lords will be aware of Southampton University's recent research into some additives which was, in fact, commissioned by the FSA.

Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Whip, Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, is not that the most important point? This most recent research shows substantially that some of those E numbers have real effects in terms of hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder. Is not the solution that the FSA should take it up with the European Food Safety Authority whether those chemicals should still be permitted in foods? Is that not the real issue and will the Government make sure that that review takes place promptly?

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, that is the real issue and that is exactly what the FSA has done; it has transmitted to the European Food Safety Agency the research advice, which is being evaluated. The EFSA will produce a report in January and we are urging the Commission to act very swiftly, once that advice has been published.

Photo of Lord Krebs Lord Krebs Crossbench

My Lords, it is important in this case to look at what the science says, rather than what the newspapers say about the science. Does the Minister agree that the scientific evidence from the Southampton study is inconclusive and that this was the conclusion reached by the statutory committee on toxicity of substances, when it examined the report? In fact, the report concludes that, out of 14 comparisons between the controls and the experimentals among children aged three and eight, only two showed a significant effect; 12 showed no effect. The question of whether or not these substances are harmful remains open. Does the Minister agree that it would be disproportionate in this circumstance to demand labelling of substances that have not been shown to be harmful?

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite correct and we must ensure that any action taken is proportionate and must be evidence-based. That is why we have transmitted the research to the European Food Safety Agency, which is undertaking further scientific research; but that is not to undervalue or underestimate the research in Southampton.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, in reply to my noble friend's supplementary question, the Minister said that mothers of children who knew that certain E numbers were harmful to their children would not be troubled by needing to know the names. Will she tell us how the parents of those children will know which E numbers are harmful specifically to children? Secondly, will she bring out some regulation for the benefit of people of my age and above requiring that print on labels in no more than 8-point type should be accompanied by a magnifying glass?

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, in respect of the first point, the FSA is having meetings with parents, with groups involved in ADHD and hyperactivity and with industry to look at better means of communicating with parents—especially hard-to-reach parents, whose children might be affected adversely. In respect of labelling and the size of print on labels, I have great sympathy with the noble Lord. I know that this matter is constantly raised in this House and I will ensure that his views are taken back to the department.

Photo of Viscount Simon Viscount Simon Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, some noble Lords have said that E numbers are not understood. However, if the E numbers and the chemical name appeared together on a can, would people not be doubly confused and would there be any advantage whatever?

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, there is not a lot of space on a label and I think that the either/or option is the easiest one at present. However, a review of labelling is being undertaken at a European level. A new draft regulation will be brought forward before Christmas, I believe, and that may have some bearing on this issue.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Shadow Minister, Health

My Lords, did the Food Standards Agency consider that certain additives may adversely affect the mood or behaviour of children? Is there not a case for having a visible warning symbol on packages of foods which contain the additives, analogous or supplemental to the so-called traffic-light system?

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, that is a very good suggestion and I think that it will be considered once the scientific evidence from the European Food Safety Authority has been received. We will then look at the various risk-management issues to see how best we can act on the new research.

Photo of Baroness Trumpington Baroness Trumpington Conservative

My Lords, does the Minister agree that size is as important as contents? Frankly, I have got to the stage where I cannot read whether what I am going to eat will poison me because I cannot read the label, as it is so small.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, size is always of the utmost importance, and I shall certainly take the noble Baroness's message back.