Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: I apologise. The actual leaflet was much bigger in size; I had to reduce it to get a colour photocopy!

Baroness Hayman: It just shows some of the difficulties of language. Indeed, the noble Countess described herself as a “small cheesemaker". I am not sure that all the cheeses were especially small; the phrase may well refer to the volume of production rather than to a small cheese that was being eaten. We have to be so careful with language.

I take the point made by several Members of the Committee that there are different but equally valid reasons for the need to have clear, comprehensible labelling on food. Some of that labelling will be much aligned to nutritional areas and the ability of people to make sensible choices about a balanced diet, as was discussed earlier. For some, as my noble friend Lord Desai remarked, the labelling may assist religious and

12 Oct 1999 : Column CWH40

cultural preferences or the ethical considerations which people have when choosing food. For some, as was clearly spelt out, labelling can be a matter of life and death when allergies are involved. It is important that labelling is both comprehensible and permits an informed choice.

My problem with this particular amendment is that the scope of this clause already covers matters such as nutritional labelling. Citing specific examples in this way probably casts doubts in judicial minds on the generality of the rest of the clause. I should like to make clear that the agency will be able to consider information from any source in developing its own advice and recommendations and that could include examining the provisions made in other countries. However, it would be unwise to place on the face of the Bill a specific link with the regulations of another country, although the example which the noble Baroness put forward--especially if it were blown up to its proper size!--seems on first reading to be both clear and useful.

Times change, however, and the legislation that is the best and the world leader today may not be the best to follow in the future. It would not be sensible to be tied down in primary legislation to something that may quickly become irrelevant.

It is important to recognise, not in the sense of saying this is a counsel of despair and we can do nothing, but because it is the reality of the situation, that information on the nutrition panel of the label on food products is subject to EU rules. That does not mean that we should not take action and that we should not lead in pressing for those rules and regulations to be better. The Government are pressing for changes which will make the information more widely available and more user friendly, and the changes that we would like to see indeed include some of the features of the system that are used in the United States.

In addition, controls on claims must be sufficient to prevent misleading claims about the health benefits of individual products. These controls will need to apply to both imported and home-produced foods, and the agency will take on responsibility for participating in international discussions with a view to agreeing common rules.

The agency will also wish to consider whether the current regime of legislation and government advice, complemented by self-regulatory initiatives, offers sufficient protection to consumers. As well as tackling the rules and advice to ensure that they need to clear consistent and comprehensive labelling, the agency will want to take steps to ensure that consumers can use them effectively. That will include providing advice for consumers in the form of leaflets as well as contributing to health education initiatives especially in schools.

The leaflet which Members of the Committee will have seen gives useful information on nutritional labelling and health claims for just that kind of purpose. Indeed the current range of MAFF's food sense booklets attempts to achieve the same objective

12 Oct 1999 : Column CWH41

and the agency will wish to consider this and other ways of helping consumers who wish to choose a healthy diet.

It is important to recognise that we are working in an EU context in terms of the regulations but that is not to say that is a reason for suggesting that it is impossible to make progress. I believe we can make progress. We have been leading the way in specific areas and pushing the European Commission in areas like the labelling of GMs, in additives and in animal feeds, and there are ways in which we can make progress within the framework of the EU food labelling directive. I have to say, however, that it is not possible for the food standards agency simply at the wave of a wand, as the noble Baroness suggested, to follow the US regulation rather than work within the framework of EU labelling rules.

Perhaps I may say a word or two on the issue of country of origin labelling because I understand the strength of feeling on that issue, although I believe I am right in saying to the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, that he is perfectly entitled voluntarily to label his apples as “English" if he so wishes. It is about receiving the financial support so to do, but he is not on the wrong side of the law if he is doing this himself and by choice. Voluntary labelling on the place of origin is of course allowed, but it must comply with legislation outlawing misleading information.

Some of the main concerns in the current regime are that the EC food labelling directive provides a place of origin and information need only be given on food labels where failure to give it might mislead the consumer to a material degree as to the true origin of the food.

There have been concerns, particularly in the pig industry, in terms of processing and the labelling that has gone on. We believe that we can take action both in terms of official guidance and by strong enforcement action to discourage misleading practices in this area. We are currently strengthening the MAFF guidance notes. We believe that this is exactly the kind of area on which the agency will be able to lead in the future.

I hope that what I have said in terms both of the importance of nutrition and the role that the agency will have both in that area and in developing policy on labelling with very much the same objectives as those who supported the noble Baroness in her amendment will mean that those who move the amendments will be willing to withdraw them.

6.15 p.m.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: I did not move my amendment because it does not arise until later.

Lord Clement-Jones: This has been a mouth-watering debate with all this talk of cheese and apples and I am sure the supper hour will come along very shortly. Also I thank noble Lords for their support for these amendments, which we very much welcome, and for their cogent comments on them.

I introduced the subject of the amendments in a fairly dry fashion purely in terms of the responsibilities of the agency but, clearly, there are ramifications and

12 Oct 1999 : Column CWH42

the Minister replied to a number of them in terms of the way in which the agency exercises its powers. It is certainly no part of our view that the agency should have a heavy-handed way of acting, whether over nutritional advice, labelling or whatever.

On the other hand, the importance of those areas cannot be denied and one only has to look at an example such as that given by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, on nut allergies in terms of labelling to recognise that. I too have a young son and that sort of case sends shivers down the spine if we feel that our system of labelling is not currently adequate.

We thought about dividing the amendment into two but the points go hand in hand. They are seen as being very much together by consumer organisations who put their weight behind these amendments and I welcome their support in so doing. To a large extent, this issue is not about drafting. Much of it is about signposting. It is about signalling to the public--to the consumer in particular--that nutrition and labelling are a vital part of the agency's role.

I take what the Minister had to say about not resiling from the White Paper and I welcome that. One should perhaps put it another way and the Minister could clarify that by saying that the duties set out in the White Paper to be carried out by the agency when it is formed will be those relative to nutrition. That positive statement of clarification would be helpful.

However, I do not wish to enter into a drafting discussion, because to argue with Ministers about drafting is extremely unwise. We are always met with either the argument that this is a list and cannot be included, or that the concept we wish to include in a Bill is already included in the wording. So we can never win either way!

I prefer to take up the Minister's helpful offer to consider other documentation surrounding the Bill and perhaps, whether outside or inside this Committee, we could have a further discussion as to precisely what that documentation is; whether or not consumer organisations can be involved and what kind of signalling and signposting we could give to show that the agency will have strong powers in that regard. We are all trying to achieve a degree of unanimity about how the agency should go forward. We are all trying to achieve an effective agency that will have consumer confidence. That is what we are concerned about and not necessarily the precise drafting of the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 11 not moved.]

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 [Appointment of chief executive and directors]:

[Amendment No. 12 not moved.]

On Question, Whether Clause 3 shall stand part of the Bill?


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page