New Clause 1 - Labelling

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 7th July 2022.

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“(1) A person must not—

(a) market a precision bred organism, or

(b) place food and feed produced from precision bred organisms on the market

unless labelled in accordance with regulations made by the Secretary of State under this section.

(2) Regulations under this section must ensure that the labelling referred to in subsection (1) provides sufficient information to support informed consumer choice, having regard in particular to—

(a) nutritional content,

(b) the potential presence of allergens or other substances which may cause adverse human health impacts, and

(c) the environmental impact of the product.

(3) Before making regulations under this section, the Secretary of State must—

(a) consult representatives of—

(i) consumers,

(ii) food producers,

(iii) suppliers,

(iv) retailers,

(v) growers and farmers,

(vi) the organic sector,

(vii) other persons likely to be affected by the regulations, and

(viii) any other persons the Secretary of State considers appropriate; and

(b) seek the advice of the Food Standards Agency on the information to be required to be provided on labelling.

(4) Section 30 (Interpretation of Part 3) has effect for the purposes of this section as it has effect for the purposes of Part 3.” —

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to make regulations about the labelling of precision bred organisms and food and feed products made from them.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 10—Labelling of food or feed produced by precision bred animals—

“(1) Food or feed produced from a precision bred animal or its progeny that is placed on the market must be labelled to inform prospective purchasers that it has been produced from a precision bred animal or its progeny.

(2) The labelling required under subsection (1) must be in easily visible and clearly legible type and, where packaging is used, it must be placed on the front outer surface of the packaging.

(3) Regulations must lay down the labelling terms to be used to meet the requirements of subsection (1).

(4) Regulations under this section are subject to the affirmative procedure.”

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I have been referring to new clause 1 throughout the Bill’s passage through Committee. Labour has been clear that we regard labelling as an important part of this new regulatory framework, and it is sadly not really referenced in the Bill, although it is discussed and then dismissed in the impact statement.

The Bill will create a new type of food product on supermarket shelves: the precision bred organism. As I said earlier, it is clear that there is a trend towards consumers wanting more information about their food—what it contains, where it comes from and its environmental impact, which are all important. As I am sure the Minister now knows, and will be tired of hearing, Labour will buy, make and sell more in Britain. How could one do that without knowing how our food is made and where it comes from?

Our new clause 1 would require the Government to introduce regulations to ensure that precision bred food and feed is labelled to provide

“sufficient information to support informed consumer choice, having regard in particular to—

(a) nutritional content,

(b) the potential presence of allergens or other substances which may cause adverse human health impacts, and

(c) the environmental impact of the product.”

It would also require the Secretary of State to consult stakeholder groups before pursuing that and to seek the advice of the Food Standards Agency.

The Government have said time and again that they support nutritional labelling to inform consumers of any allergens or if the nutritional content of a food is changed from its natural state. They must put that in the legislation and make it a commitment in the Bill. We have also heard about the issues of co-existence with other production systems and supply chain tracing, and how the legislation might have an impact on the organic sector. It is important that it is properly consulted, so that whatever labelling regime the Government introduces, it allows for different types of food production to co-exist.

The only information the Government have divulged in writing regarding labelling is their opposition to it, in the impact assessment, based on the costs it could incur for businesses. However in the impact assessment they have not actually calculated the costs and benefits of labelling, so I am unsure how they came to that judgment. Perhaps the Minister can tell us. Indeed, in that part of the impact assessment, around pages 40 and 41, it is interesting that, in paragraph 114, the Government notes that

“maintaining a labelling and tracing system could also have wider benefits, most notably, improved consumer confidence in food products potentially adding value across the food supply chain.”

Well, absolutely.

The impact assessment also states:

“Given uncertainties, as set out above, we have not monetised the estimated annual cost of a labelling and tracing system to business.”

That was identified by the Regulatory Policy Committee, which in its report—which, I have to say, categorised the Bill as “not fit for purpose”—stated:

“The traceability and labelling costs, the primary benefit for the preferred option and which differentiates the two regulatory options considered, is not quantified. As this is the main difference between the two regulatory options, the Department needs to provide some quantification of the scale of the potential impact from this change.”

I would be grateful if the Minister commented on what is, frankly, a pretty damning assessment. I appreciate that she is new to this area and that it may not be possible for her to do so today, but a written assurance that those serious issues will be addressed would be welcome at a later stage.

Further to that, in its written evidence to the Committee, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics noted that the Government’s present stance on labelling

“runs contrary to the findings of many public engagement initiatives that have broached this question... in this context, not labelling amounts to the withholding of information about consumer preferences”.

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble

In the oral evidence sessions, we heard about not only the costs of implementation but the practical challenge with labelling precision bred organisms, which is that they are scientifically and practically indistinguishable from traditionally bred organisms—that is, the ones that we have, know and love day-to-day. I note that the hon. Gentleman has not touched on a mechanism for how that labelling could be executed. The only practical way that we could know for certain whether a crop, for example, was precision bred would be to insert exogenous DNA for the purpose of labelling, which clearly goes against the spirit of some of the other debates we have had.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Lady raises a series of interesting and important points. I do not disagree with what she has said, other than to say that I think it is possible—this came through in some of the evidence as well—to maintain traceability throughout the process if we are careful about how we do it, but we have to set up systems to do so. It is clear from the impact assessment that the Government have thought about this issue, and our view is that to maintain the necessary public confidence it is absolutely right for it to be considered carefully. As such, our new clause would put the structure in place for that discussion to happen. If the hon. Lady looks carefully at what the new clause actually says, she will see that.

I was about to make exactly the same point as the hon. Lady: we understand the challenges that labelling may pose. However, as was said in the impact assessment, the significant benefit it would bring in terms of public trust and supporting consumer choice may well be worth having. Our view is that the Government have not given sufficient thought to the matter nor evaluated it sufficiently, as is admitted in the impact assessment. Our new clause 1 would require them to undertake further consultation on labelling and then introduce an appropriate system.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I know that labelling has been raised as a concern by Committee members and others, and I understand that the new clauses intend to provide information to consumers, so I will try to provide some reassurances on that point.

The Bill is based on the science, and the science tells us that precision bred organisms are equivalent to, and pose no greater risk than, their traditionally bred counterparts. We have received advice from independent scientific experts and heard from many witnesses who considered labelling to be unnecessary in the case of precision breeding. Dr Helen Ferrier of the NFU agreed that it would be “misleading” to consumers to require a compulsory label, as there is no scientific difference. Dr Richard Harrison said,

“I do not think there is any scientific rationale to have additional labelling criteria for gene-edited products, because they are fundamentally indistinguishable from nature.”––[Official Report, Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Public Bill Committee, 28 June 2022; c. 63, Q103.]

The Bill is consistent with the science, but also with the approach taken by many international partners around the world that have already legislated in this way. We do not think it is necessary to label based on the technology used.

Much of the proposed new clause is already covered by existing food legislation—in particular, regulation 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers. We know that there are exciting developments to improve the nutritional content of some food, but consumers will want to know of any nutritional or allergen composition that might affect them.

Regulations on the provision of food information to consumers already adequately cover nutritional and allergen labelling, and that does not change because the product is derived from a precision bred organism. We therefore do not think it is necessary to include additional provisions in the Bill. We will respond to the further information that the RPC requests in an enactment 1A, to be brought forwards towards the end of the Bill’s passage through Parliament.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I listened closely to the Minister and am wondering what an enactment 1A means and when it will happen.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I would rather find out sooner rather than later.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am not sure I am totally reassured by that. I would be grateful if the Minister could write to us at some point about how the Government are addressing those criticisms.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Yes. In a way, we are going round in circles. We entirely understand the scientific arguments, but the question is how we maintain consumer confidence. The Food Standards Agency’s work shows that the public want to know. We believe the public have a right to know, and the question is how that might be done. The most recent advice from the FSA, which I cited earlier, shows that it has been thinking hard about that and may be able to draw distinctions between different types of product coming on to the market. That suggests to me that there is the possibility to provide more consumer information.

I suspect there is a wider debate about labelling, because we want to ensure that the information that we offer to consumers is not so overloaded in so many different areas that it is hard to interpret. That is a legitimate debate, and I am sure we will pursue it. We think it is important that this option remains under consideration in the Bill, and for that reason I want to press new clause 1 to a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division number 16 Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill — New Clause 1 - Labelling

Aye: 3 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 3, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.