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Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I have told the noble Baroness of some of the work which we are doing, particularly on country-of-origin labelling, which is so topical at the moment. I have also spoken about the work that we are doing within Europe and within the international community. We are also looking--this partly relates to the issue of traceability raised by the noble Viscount--at the issue of marketing. Consumers and, indeed, producers want to be able to trace back the food that they buy so that they can tell exactly where and how it was produced.
Modern technology and distribution systems make better traceability a real possibility. Despite the problems referred to by the noble Viscount, the introduction of cattle traceability has been a major step forward. Increasingly, producers are developing quality assurance schemes which give greater information on where food comes from and how it has been produced. The Government have strongly supported those moves and the agency will continue to do so. There is great scope for providing better information for consumers by putting quality assurance markers on the label. Again, it is very important that the agency makes clear what those quality assurance markers mean.
Perhaps I may reassure noble Lords who have expressed concern that the Food Safety Act is not the only way in which it will be made explicit that labelling is a responsibility of the agency. The agency will be able to set out its general objectives in relation to labelling in its statement of objectives and practices, which will be prepared under the provisions
Perhaps I may also reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, who asked a particular question about Portuguese abattoirs. Following the adverse report on the hygiene conditions in Portuguese abattoirs, I understand that the Commission took a decision to prohibit the export of meat from Portugal in order to ensure that consumer health was protected. Similarly, it acted when an analogous problem arose with Belgian products containing dioxins and it was recognised that there was a risk to health. Therefore, action was taken in that particular area.
I have been at pains to reassure noble Lords that there is no lack of a legislative basis, now or in the future, for the Government to take appropriate action on labelling. The food standards agency will have responsibility as the prime adviser to government in this area. However, some of this will not be undertaken by a regime set up by the food standards agency. For example, the issue of extending--which we wish to do--the marking of GM ingredients in animal feed will be something we have to pursue at a European level. I believe that at the moment we are all aware of the need for clear labelling on animal feed, as well as clear enforcement of the laws on animal feed.
The agency will take steps to improve the labelling regime which operates within the EU context and the way in which the agency's advisory role on labelling will be made completely transparent to the public. I emphasise once again that I do not believe that the amendments proposed by the noble Baroness will be helpful. However, I understand that she believes that consumers would in some way be reassured if, from reading the Bill, they could see that the agency was responsible for labelling. I believe we may have a divergence of opinion as to whether many people will gain that kind of reassurance from reading the Bill. I believe that "by their actions shall they be judged", and that it is by taking a proactive, consumer-protecting approach that the agency will really show what it is doing.
I cannot accept these amendments in their present form because of the difficulties that I have outlined in terms of competence for various levels of labelling in various institutions. If the noble Baroness wants me to consider whether there is some way in which I can meet some of her concerns, even at this late stage in the passage of the Bill, and if she is willing to withdraw this amendment now, I would certainly--
Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. Before she sits down perhaps I can remind all noble Lords that this Bill was drafted at a time when there were concerns about food and about all the problems we have encountered since the BSE, E.coli and salmonella scares. The reality is that this subject has now gathered momentum. The last
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I appreciate the way in which the noble Baroness has phrased her views. I believe that she recognises from her experience the difficulty of specifying one element, on which the public have focused at a particular time, out of a range of activities rather than dealing with the whole range of activities. When the agency is set up in April, the public may focus on different issues. We all know the difficulty of lists in legislation.
Once again, I can reassure the House that the legislative basis is already in place to take the sort of action that the House wants the agency to take on labelling. Of course, in view of the pleas that have been made and without undermining the principle of not going into every aspect of the work that the agency has to cover, I shall see whether we can accommodate the concerns expressed today.
Baroness Byford: My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister. We have spoken about the matter several times, and we had a long debate in Grand Committee. Now that we are in the main Chamber, the Minister will appreciate the immense feeling and desire that we should have labelling on the face of the Bill. I have to disagree with the Minister because I have looked through the Bill and I cannot find the word "labelling" anywhere. Perhaps I can take a little time to cover certain issues that have been raised today because I believe that this is one of the most important issues on this Bill.
I accept that the noble Countess, Lady Mar, cannot support my amendment as it stands, although she understands whence the amendment comes. I understand that for some commodities that are very small these amendments--particularly Amendment No. 9--ask for too many details. The one thing on which noble Lords will agree is that we want some form of kite mark on all our goods--I think that is possible, if nothing else--that each and every person in this country would recognise as meaning that the product had been produced, grown, finished and processed in this country. I know that my amendment does not specify that to the finest degree, but I believe that we can all agree that it would be welcomed readily outside this Chamber.
As I tried to highlight earlier, the great difficulty is that people see the word "British", or they see "quality assured" and they do not know what quality is being assured. We need something that is recognised across a whole range of products and not just on one product, such as the lion on eggs. It is important that the lion is on eggs as it helps egg producers. In addition, we could have a little mark on products that says that they are British. A quality mark for pork has been launched, as
My noble friend Lady O'Cathain remarked upon the fact that matters have moved on since the 1990 Act. Those who sat in on the debate in Grand Committee will have heard a great argument and discussion when I tried to have the definition of "food" put into the Bill. However, that was not welcomed. I come back to the same issue that I raised then. This is a brand new agency. It is now 1999, not 1990. It will be 2000 when the agency is established. We do not want people to say, "I am sorry, but that is in the Bill that started in 1990 and we shall have to look at X or Y to understand it." Certain matters are of prime importance and labelling is one. It should be on the face of the Bill. I thank noble Lords who have spoken and who have brought forward important matters that I hope the Minister and the Government will take on board.
I turn to one or two issues raised by the Minister. In Grand Committee, together with colleagues on the Liberal Benches, we linked labelling with nutrition. As can be seen from these two amendments, I have separated those issues because I realise that there is a big difference between labelling for nutrition information and what I call more general labelling, at which the two amendments are aimed. I hoped that that would help debate.
The Food Safety Act goes back to 1990. I would like to see "labelling" defined in the Bill. I have heard what the Minister has to say and I am encouraged--although not satisfied at this stage. Let us not be in any doubt that the Bill has draconian powers. What is not written in the Bill sometimes worries me more than what is written in the Bill. The whole issue of labelling certainly should be there.
I return to the issue of country of origin. Of all the matters in the amendment, it simply cannot be left to wait to see what happens. I know there is great hype at the moment. I am encouraged by the fact that within Europe the subject is being looked at. Perhaps I can give your Lordships some extra figures that I hope will highlight the issue.
This year our chicken imports are up by some 23 per cent on last year. The biggest supplier is Holland which has shown the biggest increase. Imports of chicken from Thailand have also increased. Of the countries from which we have imports, 85 per cent are within the EU. Whatever labelling we decide on must be applicable not just for our own country but across the EU. I know the Minister has difficulty with that.
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