My Lords, it is a pleasure to have added my name to and support Amendment 258, tabled by and introduced so superbly by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu. I draw attention to my interests as previously declared in this Committee.
In 2018, the House of Commons EFRA Committee recommended that the Government should introduced mandatory methods of production labelling, which is the aim of the amendment. It is based on similar amendments introduced earlier in the other place by Conservative Members of Parliament and I know that this is a matter of much interest to the Government. Indeed, after the Second Reading of the Bill the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, noted
“The Government has committed to a rapid review … of the role of labelling to promote high standards and animal welfare”.
I welcome that statement very much and I look forward to progress.
Previous amendments and subsection (2) of this proposed new clause refer to methods of production labelling. While that is an important step, it is not always as easy to do in practice as it appears in theory. The term “free range”, for example, has been hugely influential in terms of boosting the sale of eggs from chickens kept free range, but it is not always easy to encapsulate complex rearing, feeding and husbandry systems in such concise and easily understood terms. That becomes particularly challenging with cattle rearing and maintenance. Currently in the UK, “grass fed” just means predominantly grass fed; that is, as little as 51% of the diet is grass based. Interestingly, I note that in the USA, it is mandatory for the term “grass fed” to be supported by an independently audited labelling system to indicate the actual percentage.
Another important consideration is that while input measures such as methods of production will influence welfare, the connection is not always as it may seem. For example, outdoor rearing sounds lovely, but there can be negative aspects to it such as exposure to certain parasitic diseases, just as there can be negative aspects associated with indoor rearing. I say that to emphasise that this issue is nuanced and complex. The amendment recognises that by referring not only to methods of production but also to welfare outcomes, which are increasingly being recognised as the ultimate and ideal way to categorise the welfare impact of different production systems. Of importance too in the amendment is the inclusion of method of slaughter, which has been called for by, among others, the RSPCA.
Labelling is not as easy or simple a goal as it may seem, but it is a goal worth achieving, and it is achievable with effort. After all, it is about giving the consumer choice. If the statutory protection of our high animal welfare, environmental and food standards is not to be put in place for imported food, labelling is potentially a very important means of ensuring that the consumer can determine whether the imported food they buy is produced to equivalent standards to our own. In this respect, I note with interest that Clauses 35 and 36 make provision for the certification of organic food products in the UK and overseas with the drawing up of regulations with respect to, among other things, the mitigation of climate change and the protection of the health and welfare of livestock. Imported products, in order to be designated organic, must comply with these standards.
Interestingly, of course, we do not have equivalent legislation for non-organic food products. The establishment of a similar certification scheme for non- organic products that is backed by statute for ethically produced food products that might be called, say, “UK quality assured” that would be available to UK and imported food products would be a major step forward. It could be developed in collaboration with existing food assurance schemes using labelling along the lines suggested in the amendment or revisions of it. That would not be as ideal as a blanket legal requirement that all imported food should meet certain standards, but it would comply with WTO rules and complement the proposed trade and agriculture commission. Are the Government considering such developments, and if not, will they do so?
Our consumers are increasingly knowledgeable and discerning about food matters, and we know that issues such as animal welfare and the environment are of huge importance to the public. There is very considerable demand for further information on these issues to be available with the food we buy or consume, when we buy or consume it. There is also an opportunity to develop a voluntary system of certified minimum standards recognised internationally, which I have mentioned above, and which would complement this amendment.
As outlined in this amendment, statutory labelling to describe the method of production, slaughter and/or welfare outcomes associated with all food products—of whatever origin—would help consumers make their own choice and would help to maintain high welfare and environmental standards.