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24 Feb 2009 : Column 233

Jane Kennedy: That is precisely the work that we are doing. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that when a case can be made to demonstrate that customers are being misled, that case should be made.

As for the second prize for the worst example—the Marks and Spencer sandwich that the hon. Gentleman mentioned—he did not appear to be quarrelling with the labelling, which is quite clear. Marks and Spencer does not seek to hide the fact that the sandwich—a corned beef sandwich—is made with Brazilian beef. That is stated on the label, and is reasonably well printed. It is the packaging and the marketing to which the hon. Gentleman objected, and in that respect I entirely agree with him. It could, I think, be argued that when such a claim is made and the marketing is carried out in such a way—the advertising is another issue—the country of origin should appear in the same field of view. Otherwise, there is a potential for consumers to be misled. I want to establish whether there are options allowing us to encourage clarity of that kind. When such encouragement does not work— [Interruption.] I shall explain in a moment why we will need to approach the European Commission to make that change.

Nick Herbert rose—

Jane Kennedy: I will give way one last time.

Nick Herbert: I am grateful to the Minister. Does she agree that, while Marks and Spencer’s other labelling is entirely commendable, the emblazoning of the Union flag all over the front of that sandwich makes the labelling misleading? Does she agree that—as I have said to Sir Stuart Rose—the packaging should be re-engineered so that it does not mislead consumers?

Jane Kennedy: Both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have met representatives of eight of the big retailers and representatives of the British Retail Consortium. We discussed the issue as recently as three weeks ago, and we continue to raise it.

I accept what the hon. Gentleman has said about that particular sandwich. I think it is clear from all the evidence that he has seen, from the evidence that the Jamie Oliver programme uncovered and from the experience of anyone who shops in supermarkets that British retailers know the value of the Union flag as a selling point for food. Precisely because it is of such value to them as retailers, British customers ought to be able to rely completely on the fact that, if it is being used to market in such a way, they understand what they are purchasing and are not being misled.

Mr. Bacon: Does the Minister accept that a simple way out would be to put to the Commission the point that although it claims that there should not be country of origin labelling unless consumers might be misled, the possibility of consumers being misled would be reduced to zero if all products across the EU were clearly labelled by country of origin? Should that not be a compulsory, EU-led scheme, driven by the British Government?

Jane Kennedy: I am not sure that that is the case. If we were to have all country of origin information on all products, what would we do with, for example, a pizza that is entirely made in the UK but that might be made with imported wheat or cheese or pepperoni sausage? How much of that would have to go on the label? I do not agree that in all cases all the products need to be
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displayed on the label. If we start to consider narrowing that down, we come closer to the Opposition proposal, but I believe that that would fail the challenge that the European Commission would set it, as I have described.

That does not, however, mean that there might not be a case for having a more narrowly drawn definition. The Spanish asparagus case was mentioned. I understand that that was tinned Spanish asparagus, and that the European Commission has allowed it as an exception—as a demonstrably very narrowly drawn exception. Therefore, if we are to make progress and persuade the European Commission that there is something that we can do in the UK because of the danger of consumers being misled, we must be much smarter in how we do it and not use the blunderbuss approach suggested from the Conservative Front Bench.

Dr. Murrison: Could the right hon. Lady not then apply for an exception for British pork—in the same way that the Spanish have applied for an exception for their tinned asparagus—given the uneven playing field that has been introduced since 1999 because of animal welfare standards? That seems to me to be perfectly reasonable. Why has she not done it?

Jane Kennedy: It is certainly something that I will be looking into. [Interruption.] Well, it is something that I am absolutely committed to seeing whether we can achieve, because I think it will help British consumers and will allow them to use the power of their spending to support British farmers, and I think they deserve that.

There may be options for action in the UK or England for some produce. I am not yet in a position to start to debate the detail of what those options might be, but there is certainly no simple solution. I want to explore them further. The taskforce that I am establishing to examine the changes taking place in the pigmeat supply chain is the forum to do that, as there will be immediately available to it the advice of the Food Standards Agency, farmers, slaughterers, processors and retailers, all of whom have agreed to join the taskforce.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Does the right hon. Lady not agree that, at the very least, it should not be possible to pass off meat produced from livestock raised in one country but that is then slaughtered, butchered or processed in another country as the product of that latter country? To my mind, that is simply passing off incorrectly the origin of that meat, and that must be covered by the EU rules.

Jane Kennedy: That is within the scope of the discussions that are taking place in the European Commission about how we as a Community should improve the laws on labelling, in order to make sure that misleading labelling is not used in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes.

Let me respond to the accusation, which has been repeated, that nothing has been done in 10 years. First, the FSA has been created, and the guidance it has issued has brought about real changes in the quality of labelling. That has clearly opened up the possibility of further criticism, which has been trenchantly made today—

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Mr. Bacon rose—

Jane Kennedy: I am conscious that I am taking up a lot of time, but I will give way again.

Mr. Bacon: The right hon. Lady is being very generous in giving way. The FSA updated its guidance in July. Will she confirm that it is correct that that updated guidance made no specific mention of country of origin labelling?

Jane Kennedy: The guidance was updated again in November. The FSA is quite clear about what should be included in any origin claims. In fact, it is because of FSA influence that support has been won across Europe for precisely the point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). We should give full credit to the FSA for the influence that it has brought to bear in winning support for the improvements that are beginning to flow through and for there now being such debates in Europe.

If the option for changing the rules for labelling on a UK basis only becomes viable, I will pursue it, but I am aware—as the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs should be—that such UK options must find the approval of the European Commission. His proposals would have to find its approval.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con) rose—

Jane Kennedy: May I just finish this point? Given the Conservatives’ famously robust view of Europe, how do they propose to get their new law through such scrutiny? They are completely isolated in Europe, and already lack support for their key policies, such as renegotiating a ratified treaty of Lisbon. On that key policy, they are supported by the Dutch animals party, the French hunting, fishing, nature, tradition party, Sinn Fein and some communists. [Interruption.] On renegotiating the treaty of Amsterdam regarding the social chapter, they have no support from any quarter— [Interruption.]—and they do not like it when they are reminded of it. In both such instances, there is no support for their position from any of the 26 member states. [Interruption.] This is an important and serious point: how will their proposal on food labelling fare any differently from these two other no-hope options that are key policy objectives of the Conservative party? I believe that its policy statement is a dishonest position because it cannot be achieved. I will want to study it carefully to see if there is any merit at all in it, but I am not convinced that there is.

We all agree that consumers need clear information to enable them to make informed decisions, but the Opposition’s simplistic solution of introducing new domestic legislation is not the silver bullet that they are asking this House, the farming community and citizens to believe it is. They claim that there will be no costs incurred, but on what do they base that claim? Can they be sure that businesses and families who are struggling to make ends meet would not be adversely affected? How will they get their plans on to the statute book without a costly, complicated and drawn-out row with the European Commission, which has already sent back less demanding proposals from the Irish Government?

Our approach is more proportionate; it is based on what is deliverable. Even a narrowly drawn UK option that might succeed would take years to succeed, and I am not prepared to wait for that. I am prepared to make
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the approaches that are necessary and I will do so, but I want improvements now. More importantly, I want to see what can be delivered and for it to be delivered as quickly as possible.

Mr. Drew: One thing that has not been mentioned is genetically modified food and its labelling. We know that there is a clear embargo on GM-produced food, but there is far less clarity about animals that have been fed on GM feed and subsequently come into the human food chain—they have to come from abroad. Will the Minister clarify the labelling position in that regard?

Jane Kennedy: My hon. Friend is right to point out that it is possible for consumers unknowingly to buy meat products of animals that have been raised on GM feed. If consumers have a concern about that, they can follow particular supermarkets that have a clear policy on it. It is the subject of another interesting debate, although not one for today. British farmers will hope that we return to the subject in more detail on another occasion.

Rob Marris: Speaking of a debate to which we may return on another occasion and given that this one is about British agricultural production and food labelling, can the Minister say a little about security of supply? As I have said, that is a growing issue, given that climate change is accelerating worldwide and will adversely affect food production both in countries from which we have hitherto received food and in this country. Security of supply is vital and it is a growing issue, to coin a phrase.

Jane Kennedy: My hon. Friend is right to mention security of supply, which covers at least two areas. One is the need to ensure that we farm in a way that is environmentally sustainable in the long term—that is one way of ensuring food security. A second is the need to understand what is happening in some of the sectors to ensure that, as we mentioned when discussing the Competition Commission’s concerns, there is not an undue level of power and that the risk in a food supply chain is not borne disproportionately by one part of it.

That is why I hope that drawing from the model that the Dairy Supply Chain Forum has used for many years and using the same approach in the pig industry, following on from the Select Committee’s recommendations, will allow us to understand the pressures within the whole food supply chain, so that we can bring about a more sustainable and secure sector, within which confidence grows. The farmers, in particular, tell me that they fear that confidence levels are not as good as they should be. [Interruption.] The representatives of the British pig industry also tell me that it is a very vibrant industry where a lot of good work is going on and that we should be careful not to talk the industry down to the point where new blood is reluctant to come into it because people do not have confidence about security. [Interruption.] All the points being raised from the Conservative Benches are precisely why we need to examine that detail.

The way forward that we are proposing will not impose unnecessary burdens on the supply chain. While we will work with our international partners to deliver clear and unambiguous labelling provisions across the Community, we will engage with the whole domestic supply chain to deliver improvements before EU regulations come into force. What that means in practice is working
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with the Pig Meat Supply Chain Task Force—I have mentioned it more than once this evening—which I announced at the National Farmers Union annual general meeting last week, to identify practical solutions to improve labelling, not just for retail sales, but in the hospitality sector. I anticipate that the work the taskforce will do will be able to be applied across other sectors of the food chain.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have been pressing retailers to use the Food Standards Agency’s best practice guidance across their ranges. That guidance was extensively consulted on, reviewed in November and is already a tougher standard than that set down by the European Commission. We will continue to hold processors and retailers to account, while recognising the valuable strides that they have taken to tackle this issue.

We have helped Departments to buy local food—my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) rightly emphasises the importance of local food. Did the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs even know that anyone who has milk in their tea or eats an egg in a Department is supporting the British food industry? That is not to say that I am complacent and that there is not more to do. All the practical measures I have mentioned will have a greater impact on helping consumers back the British farmer if they want to do so than the hon. Gentleman’s costly and bureaucratic solution. That is why I urge the House to support the Government’s amendment and reject his ill-thought-out proposals.

8.34 pm

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): It is important to know the truth about what we buy. The description on the outside can be technically accurate, but a million miles from reality. For instance, in 1997, some people thought that they had elected a Labour Government. If I may pour some opprobrium on myself, I can say that in 1995 I led my then 11-year-old younger brother along the righteous path of supporting Blackburn Rovers on the prospectus that they were premier league champions and therefore the best team in the country—all technically true at the time. It has since led to significant disappointment, albeit character building.

Accurate labelling of British meat produce, however, actually does matter. It matters because consumers have the right to know what it is that they are eating. As things stand, lambs imported from France but slaughtered in the UK can be passed off as British produce. Pig carcases brought in from Ireland and processed into sausages in the UK can be sold as British sausages, and milk from Belgium that has been churned in the UK can be sold as butter from Britain.

When consumers make their choices, they should do so with the fullest possible range of information. The current situation is not acceptable, because it effectively allows shoppers to be conned into believing that they are buying British when they are not. It is not simply a matter of wanting to buy British for the sake of it. Indeed, many consumers use buying British as a reliable proxy for shopping ethically. That is the case because British standards of animal welfare, and of environmental impact in farming, are among the highest in the world. Of course, buying genuinely British produce means reducing food miles, and significantly cutting the carbon emissions involved in food production.

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Mandatory country of origin labelling would allow us to make those ethical choices with confidence. Of course, investing in the best possible animal welfare standards and in the highest environmental specifications is not cheap, as has already been pointed out. Even with mandatory labelling, we still face the problem of the produce of other countries gaining a competitive advantage from lower standards. Equalisation of standards across the EU to British levels is crucial if we are to tackle climate change, improve animal welfare standards and give our farmers the benefit that they deserve for taking the lead in ethical food production. But the Government are wrong if they think that that is all we need to do. If I were permitted to merge the Conservative motion with the Government amendment—taking out the odd word, of course—we would have a perfectly presentable proposition, but even combined, those solutions would be weak and inadequate.

The Conservative motion is fine as far as it goes—there is nothing in it to disagree with—but I would question why the concentration is simply on country of origin labelling. If we are to empower consumers, we must ensure that they have information on environmental impact, such as the carbon, energy and water use impacts of the produce, as well as country of origin. Given that British produce incurs fewer food miles and has a more benign environmental impact, environmental labelling would also be a boost for British farming. We surely do not want some kind of complicated, expensive and bureaucratic multiple scheme. The answer must be a simple and straightforward labelling system that incorporates all that information.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I note that the hon. Gentleman refers to himself as the shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Can he therefore tell us what he meant by calling in the Western Morning News some months ago for proper regulation of prices in the food chain? Is that a Liberal Democrat prices and incomes policy?

Tim Farron: We believe in having a proper supermarket regulator to ensure that we do not just have the surface intervention that we have talked about so far in this debate. We need effective intervention to create fairness in the market, on behalf of farmers in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and mine. It is a shame that the Conservative motion has overlooked the environmental aspects of labelling. It must be a blind spot for the party.

Mr. Stephen O’Brien: I am intrigued by the idea that the hon. Gentleman would like to support both the Opposition motion and the Government amendment. I want to understand how he makes the choice between our words, which call

and the Government’s, which call

The Government do not use any reference to introduction or to the word “mandatory”. Is the hon. Gentleman supporting each side in the same way?

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