Food Policy

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:53 am on 20th March 2001.

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Photo of Stephen O'Brien Stephen O'Brien Conservative, Eddisbury 9:53 am, 20th March 2001

We meet today to discuss food policy in the most difficult and testing of circumstances. We have a national emergency, a national crisis, with the epidemic of foot and mouth. We all share in having foremost in our thoughts the anxieties and distress of farmers and all those concerned with the rural economy and the British countryside. If it were in order, which it clearly is not, I would ask for us to observe a minute's silence for all those who are going through such a difficult time. I am sure that that sentiment will be shared throughout the Chamber today.

Farmers in Eddisbury and across wider Cheshire were devastated by the foot and mouth outbreak in 1967. It is with them in mind that I have been keen since I entered the House 18 months ago to find the food policy issues that tie together the interests of producers and consumers. It has become clear that consumers properly demand quality, choice, reliability and a fulsome supply of the food that they need and enjoy, which forms part of their standard of life, as well as being a staple of life.

In addition, there are public safety and public health issues, but it is important to stress at this difficult time in the countryside that foot and mouth is not a public health issue and not a disease that is a danger to human beings. In trying to tackle these difficult issues as best we can--I am at one with the whole House on this--we must be careful to dissect the issues so that we do not send out any alarmist messages.

In focusing on food policy, we must recognise that we live in a country where, by any relative test, the highest quality of food is produced and made available to consumers. We can be proud of that, but it is no accident; there has always been a commitment in this country to producing the highest quality food. However, our debate would not be completely honest if I did not record that I believe that the Government are generally inimical to tying together the interests of consumers and producers. I mean no disrespect to the Minister, who has made time to be here to reply to the debate when, as part of the Executive team dealing with the foot and mouth crisis, she has so much on her plate. However, while the subject of food remains in the title of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Government have assigned the Food Standards Agency and food policy generally to the Department of Health. Why, therefore, has a Health Minister not come to reply to the debate? I can only suppose that, although responsibility for the FSA as a quango has been assigned to the Department of Health, there is a lack of expertise and knowledge in that Department about the issues surrounding the responsibilities of the FSA. That would make it right for the Government to send an Agriculture Minister, who is likely to have received the best briefing and to have most knowledge. Of course, we met in the House in March last year when I promoted the Food Labelling Bill as a private Member's Bill.

It will be interesting to hear the Minister's justification, not for being here but for why the Government have deployed someone from MAFF rather than from the Department of Health, given the changes that have taken place in responsibility for this area of policy. If the subject is hybrid, we need clarification of who in Government has responsibility for food policy. Is it MAFF or the Department of Health? Is the Department of Health focused on the more alarmist danger signals relating to food and public health and MAFF more concerned with the supply chain? If so, that reinforces my point--this has certainly been my experience in dealing with such issues on behalf of my constituents--about the essential need to tie together the interests of consumers and producers, in order not only to maintain the high quality of food in this country but to ensure accountability. Accountability is the key to confidence--an important word--on the part of the consumer and producer in the food industry. That may be at the ultimate end, when the purchasers make decisions, or initially, when the relevant issues are for farmers and oMr. Drew made farmers' reasons for wanting a rural way of life clear, but that must be based on economic justification. That is why some producers take investment decisions. Their interests must be protected.

As part of our important considerations of the country's food policy, I intend to review the position that we have reached on food labelling. I was able to promote a private Member's Bill on food labelling, so, naturally, I have studied the subject greatly. When I framed the Bill, I was glad to gain the support of the National Farmers Union and the National Pig Association. The Bill proved not only that honesty in food labelling is of high public interest, but that it is important to tie together the interests of producers and consumers on food labelling, rather than to drive a wedge between them.

The Bill called for labelling to state both country of origin--that should be clear, simple and honest--and standards of production. Of course, there were all sorts of complications. As we said on the Floor of the House late last night, when we were discussing the Select Committees on European Scrutiny and on Defence, the devil is in the detail--not that we received many answers. Pre-prepared foods are likely to combine ingredients of different origins. How is a regime to deal with that? We tackled it in the Bill by saying that the country of origin would have to reflect all the ingredients that constituted more than 25 per cent. in weight of a product. I accept that it became clear during the debate on 3 March last year that the Bill needed amending if it was to become law, but it had the right strategy and employed the right series of policies.

We are not yet clear about the source of the current foot and mouth outbreak, and--who knows?--my Bill might have helped to prevent it. It would have recorded constituent ingredients sourced from another country if they made up more than 25 per cent. by weight of any product. It is well known that our armed forces have changed their policy of being supplied exclusively with British food and are allowed to be supplied with food from abroad. Questions are being asked as to whether scraps from food fed to the forces at Catterick were in pigswill that ended up at the farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall. That could be a source, given that some of the food came from South Africa. We know that foot and mouth disease is endemic in parts of South Africa. That is supposition, and I am anxious that none of us should be alarmist. However, had there been a better regime on labelling the country of origin and production standards of food, we might have had the necessary information and certification on foodstuffs, in the private or public sector, to have had a chance to prevent foot and mouth from entering the country. Of course, that is pure speculation.

As the Minister recalls--she was present--the Government chose to talk out my Food Labelling Bill. We all know that hon. Members sometimes speak at great length on private Members' Bills so that they run out of time, and my judgment was that it was better to ensure that all the points were made. I made a fairly long speech because I was anxious not to give the time to those who had no interest in seeing my Bill on the statute book. The Minister dealt with some of the points that I made. She argued that the proposals on country of origin did not need the force of law, but subsequent events have shown that there is an issue of confidence for consumers and producers because country of origin labelling is inadequate. The proposals on standards of production raise more intricate details and difficulties. The Minister argued that that was fully covered by a series of regulations because it had been delegated to wider European Union responsibilities, and that the Government were seeking urgently to negotiate and advance the matter in those councils. It is worrying that we have heard little more about it, although there have been a number of reports.

An easy regime would be to display the country of origin simply with a letter, perhaps in large print. Such information appears on some products, but not clearly and obviously. On standard of production, there could be some form of kite mark certification. Some product labels include an essay of information on ingredients, including whether they are genetically modified, contain nuts and so on. That is confusing and unhelpful for consumers at the point of decision in a supermarket or a local shop. That is why the kite mark analogy was raised. It would be possible to arrange certification, and many European Union member states have an equal interest in the matter because they want to protect their regional markets. There are derogations in regulations and legislation to enable regional origin of products to be certified, but the only result to date is from the National Farmers Union, which, laudably, initiated the red tractor logo. Many consumers who want to buy British farm-assured quality food welcomed that. Many genuinely British food products sport the union jack on the packaging and many consumers prefer, if they have the chance, to focus their purchasing on such products.

I do not want to denigrate the NFU's red tractor logo. It has been extensively applied in many supermarkets and other outlets, but it does not guarantee that the product is British. It demonstrates that the food has been produced to British farm produce standards and many producers of imported foods have insisted through the distribution chain that their foods are labelled with that logo, so its meaning has been thrown into doubt. I shall not pursue the point too heavily because the logo should be encouraged rather than diminished, but it is not the same as a true country of origin label and it is not what can be achieved under the current law and regulations.

In the enactment of the Food Standards Act 1999, which led to the creation of the Food Standards Agency, we saw that this country has enormous expertise in food labelling and certification, but this has not been brought to bear domestically to the extent to which it should. That is part of the reason why I introduced my Food Labelling Bill, and why I argued a year ago that we should show leadership in the field. European member states are hungry to see us take leadership, as they recognise our enormous expertise, as shown by the speed at which we have developed the quality choice that is available in supermarkets and other outlets. I join the hon. Member for Stroud in celebrating the farmers markets and all the other outlets for high-quality food. There could be a joint enterprise with the EU to ensure that our leadership and understanding of the issues is brought to bear.

I fear that there is a reluctance to go faster than the slowest pace set in the EU in achieving a significant uprating in honesty in food labelling in this country. After my Bill failed to be enacted, I had discussions with the Food Standards Agency, and although I received an extremely sympathetic hearing to the aspects of the Bill on country of origin labelling, there was considerable suspicion, indeed doubt, about my proposal on standards of production. It would be both irresponsible and inappropriate to try to introduce improvements in our food policy without introducing measures on standards of production. Our approach to food labelling would allow consumers to be confident about food, and farmers would know how the high-quality food that they produced was represented.

The importance of my proposal on standards of production was most clearly evidenced in the enormous concern expressed about the stall-and-tether method of farming pigs. There has been an admirable move away from that method, at huge investment cost to many pig farmers. That change has not been matched by our key European competitors. Denmark is a case in point. This country is a great consumer of Danish bacon. We do not denigrate its quality or availability, but there is concern at the lack of speed at which Denmark is abolishing stalls and tethers in pig farming. Denmark has sought a derogation under the EU directive.

It is important to note that we seem to be going at the pace of the slowest member state on certain issues, although we are going faster than other member states in policing the EU directives that apply to domestic marketplaces. That is why there is deep concern, and why we would do well to consider framing a law that reflects our domestic needs, rather than relying simply on EU regulations that are subject to interminable negotiations without result.

What has been done since we debated my private Member's Bill on food labelling a year ago? It is not apparent what has been achieved. I accept that the Minister cannot be blamed, but there is a sense that the Government have found themselves in hock to the supermarkets to a degree. At the same time, as soon as the going gets tough, the Prime Minister says that the supermarkets have the farmers in an arm lock. This is not a battle between two sides and it is unhelpful to regard it as such. As I have said, we must try to unite producers and consumers, and the Prime Minister was ill-advised in using the phrase "arm lock", even though it doubtless struck a sympathetic chord with the many farmers who continue to feel desperately blighted and let down by this Government.

Even though the Prime Minister's spokesman sought to backtrack on the use of that phrase the following day, it would be extremely helpful if the Minister could clarify what the Prime Minister meant when he used it in relation to supermarkets and farmers. I am reminded of the debate surrounding community health councils. The Prime Minister said that there had been no consultation on scrapping community health councils, but then asserted that in fact there had. He had to write to me to make it clear that the Government had already decided to scrap them.

One issue raised by the hon. Member for Stroud was greater public education on food policy. The Select Committee on Education and Employment produced a report on school meals and the availability of fruit and other suitable foods. In the light of it and the evidence taken, we must remember that there is no point in producing food for any sector of the population--particularly children and young people--that is not attractive to them. Food that they cannot be persuaded to eat, however worthy and nutritious, is simply not acceptable, and alternatives that are perhaps not as healthy must be used.

A local Labour councillor in my area successfully undertook a cross-party initiative, which I supported fully and publicly, to encourage the availability of free milk in schools. However, it is disappointing to note that very few parish councils have taken up the initiative. The problem is not a lack of will or initiative on the part of the local town councillor or, indeed, the local Member of Parliament, but the reluctance of parish councils and others to respond positively. To our great surprise, the few replies that we received were ambivalent. We must look again at how to make the right food attractive to young people and other elements of the community.

I am conscious that time is running out, and I shall try to bring my remarks to a close. The Conservative policy on honesty in food labelling picks up on the proposals in my Food Labelling Bill, although I recognise that those proposals need amending to some extent. We should not worry about the hurdles that we encounter. Like the hon. Member for Stroud, I have spoken to organisations such as i-Label, which has considerable expertise in respect of consumer access to ingredients, and to those who know how to put together a standard of production certificate that includes the country of origin.

One has only to access the internet and type a phrase such as "Swedishsafemeat.com" to discover that it is possible to trace every single pig, sheep and cow product in Sweden. Those who buy a joint of meat in a Swedish shop can determine from which animal it came by accessing the relevant website, and we should all copy that approach. If Sweden can manage that, it is surely not beyond the wit of this country, given our great expertise in food products and food regimes. It is important to tie together consumer and producer interests, including supermarkets, distributors, restaurateurs and those involved in public procurement, as well as securing the support of everyone involved in the rural economy, including farmers and producers.

The hon. Member for Stroud referred to joined-up government. The Government's proposals must be based on joined-up thinking. There is a proposal afoot to introduce a law on corporate manslaughter. If some absolute outrage took place in the food chain, the last thing that a director of a supermarket chain or distribution company would want is to find themselves liable for an offence of corporate manslaughter as a result of inadequate information and inadequate labelling. Every constituent member of the food chain should be required to have the relevant information about food, including its origins and standards of production. Perhaps the foot and mouth outbreak would not have occurred had that been implemented through domestic law rather than treated as a matter for negotiation under our obligations to the EU.

One saving grace about honesty in food labelling--which I should have thought that other parties, as well as the Conservative party, would wish to recognise--is that it is a completely cost-free option to the public purse. The burden could properly fall on those at the retail end of the food chain--not, for once, putting the squeeze on the farm gate.

I have spoken at length. I look forward to hearing the Minister respond to the points that I have made.