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The Countess of Mar: The noble Lord might not know about it, but only a few months ago there was some cheese in a Tesco shop in the north east of England which was contaminated and the whole thing was kept quiet.
Lord Desai: I was talking about microbiological risks, and the big scandal of E.coli and so forth which occurred. I am not saying that foreign food is not to blame, I am saying that we have to look at microbiological risk first.
What do the labels do? They must be simple; they cannot be complicated. The noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, wanted them to contain a complete description of the product. The leather on his shoes, for instance, may not have come from Italy. It may have come from India and the sole may have come from somewhere else. When you buy a product, the label indicates its final assembly and it is very difficult to indicate all the various components and all the processes which the goods have been through. Such a requirement placed on agricultural products it will place an immense burden on farmers or whoever will finally have to do the labelling, and it will be too complicated to understand.
We must separate these things. It is very important that the food standards agency has an educational role in clarifying our position compared with other countries, so that if people know foods are from Portugal, France or Belgium they will have some idea of the degree of additional risk they may be incurring by buying that food. You cannot state, In Portugal
However, we must at all costs avoid a protectionist bias whereby the food standards agency is not just protecting the consumer but the producer as well by shutting out imports. That would be very damaging, because at the very least it will lead to retaliation and will not be any good to us. Others will also do the same with British food, so we should keep the position as simple as possible and as legal as possible but think of the consumer far more than the producer.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman): We have had an interesting debate and I assure the noble Baroness that she need not apologise for the length of it. It has built on some of the themes that we discussed yesterday with reference to the importance of labelling when we talked about including the matters of nutrition and labelling in various parts of the Bill. My answer on the specifics of the amendment may once again be the boring, ministerial, legislative, robot answer that the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, would expect. However, that in no way implies that we undervalue the importance of labelling. The range of issues that labelling can cover was rightly pointed out. The noble Lord said that because labelling is important in different ways, it can have different functions.
We have come back again and again in Committee discussions to the danger posed to certain individuals from eating foods to which they are allergic. Therefore labelling can provide immediate and important health protection information for the individual. It can equally be vital that individuals or parents who want to ensure a nutritious and balanced diet for themselves or their children know the content of particular foods. Labelling can play an educative role as well in enabling people to understand that a particular food that they may not think contains salt, sugar or high levels of fat in fact does so.
There is a range of issues here that it is important for us to cover. To address the other side of the matter, mention has been made of the importance of producers' interests in being able to communicate effectively with consumers on issues such as welfare standards or country of origin. Some people wish to base their purchasing on their own preferences as to country of origin. That is a convoluted way of making the point of buying British mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, or not buying a product from a particular country or--as we discussed yesterday--the ethical or religious reasons that people may have for choosing to avoid or specifically to support particular areas.
So there is no difference between us as to the importance of labelling. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, rightly pointed out that the Food Advisory Committee is opening up this discussion, giving the public the chance to put their views on food labelling
My noble friend Lord Desai was right to caution against trying to put everything on to a label. We have to put our corporate minds to the point of what the relevant information is on a particular product. I have been involved in the issue of foods with GM ingredients and then the issues that have now been raised about GM ingredients in animal foods, in the issue of GM processes that are involved in producing elements that go into a food and we have to make some decisions about what a phrase such as GM free" means in technical terms and make sure that those phrases are used in the same way by the same people.
That takes me to the issue of misleading labelling. Concern has been expressed both today and yesterday by Members of the Committee about the potential for misleading information in a great variety of areas. Nutritional claims about food can be misleading and can give people the impression that they are buying something that is healthy in very broad terms, whereas in fact a rigorous scanning of contents might suggest that the balance of ingredients was not such that one would want to replicate the whole time.
Today we have talked about the difficulty of misleading labelling regarding country of origin. We are currently considering whether the MAFF guidance notes, for both the industry and the enforcement authorities--and we have to recognise that the local authorities are the enforcement authorities here--which have a significant effect on practice, should be revised to deal with this point. We do not believe that the current situation is satisfactory and where there is clearly some risk of consumers being misled--for example, where meat is processed in the United Kingdom but produced elsewhere--we are looking extremely carefully at what can be done. Clearly, we do not want to break the law, but I believe that there are some flexibilities to tighten up, if that is not oxymoronic in this context. We are studying carefully what we can do to stop people being misled in this situation.
In the obverse case, there are higher standards in some cases, but by no means in all. We have introduced standards of animal welfare, for example, which we believe are right and also can offer positive marketing advantage to our producers. It is perfectly possible for producers to label their products to show how they have been produced. Indeed, many producers are developing just such quality assurance schemes. That is an important area although, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, pointed out, it is a voluntary act and we can compel other people to label in a particular way.
Turning to research, as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, suggested, £5 million per year in the nutritional research budget currently held by MAFF will be transferred over to the agency, which we clearly expect to continue carrying out research in this area. That was made absolutely clear in the White Paper, and there is no intention whatever to go back on that.
It would not be right, however, to predetermine in legislation the priorities in the agency's research budget at any one time and for one particular. It needs some flexibility to respond to changing circumstances and new problems. The programme at the moment is very large. There are ongoing commitments and those will be honoured, but knowing how MAFF's research budget has had to take account of BSE and fund more research into TSEs than we would have predicted 10 or 15 years ago, my experience shows that we have to be prepared to be flexible in such research budgets.
Finally, turning to the amendment, I believe that there is no need to include those specific requirements in the Bill. They are already adequately covered by existing provisions. All the functions described in the amendment form a valid part of the agency's work and we expect the agency to be active in this area. The agency has a general duty under Clause 7 to provide advice and information to the public, as well as the general objective of protecting the interests of consumers in relation to food contained in Clause 1(2).
These aims will be met in part by ensuring that the public have adequate information to make informed choices about food by offering advice on using and interpreting the information on labelling. The noble Baroness illustrated the need to have that general duty to provide advice and information to the public and not to narrow it down simply to labelling, when she said that the public want the answers to questions such as, Is red meat good for you?" That is not a question that can be answered only on the label of a piece of meat bought in the supermarket--it is a question which perhaps cannot even be answered! We will not go into the debate about whether an individual food is good for you, but this illustrates that we need a breadth of information coming from the agency. We absolutely intend that it should provide that and I hope that Members of the Committee will be reassured that the areas of concern which the noble Baroness has rightly raised will be covered as mainstream activity by the terms of the Bill.
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