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Food Standards Bill

3.21 p.m.

Read a third time.

Lord Rea moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 2, line 9, after ("food") insert ("standards, food").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 1, I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 3, 4, 6, 7 and 12, which also stand in my name.

My noble friend knows that I do not intend to press these amendments although, if she were able to accept them, I should of course be delighted. My purpose in moving them is to provide a peg which will allow me to ask my noble friend to amplify the information that she has given us so far on the objectives and activities of the food standards agency in its role in the field of nutritional policy, rather than its role as a watchdog over the microbiological safety of food.

The original purposes of the food standards agency as described in the White Paper, A Force for Change, will be emphasised by adding "food standards" to "food safety" each time those words appear in the Bill. As it stands, the Bill reads as though it is mainly concerned with food safety. Of course that is important, but its other equally or-- possibly in the long term--more important role is covered only in rather vague phrases, such as "otherwise to protect" in Clause 1, or,

in relation to food in Clauses 2, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 22.

At previous stages of the Bill my noble friend explained why the Government do not believe it necessary to use the word "nutrition" or "nutrient" on the face of the Bill. Many people working in the field of public health, both practitioners and academics--including the original author of the proposal for a food standards agency, Professor Philip James--do not accept the Government's reasoning on this.

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My noble friend gave us reassurances at each stage of the Bill that nutritional policy and the nation's diet will definitely form part of the agency's role. Those reassurances are recorded in the Official Report. I thank her for that. I hope that this afternoon she will be able to say that the Government endorse the outline of or general objectives for the agency which have been suggested by the National Heart Forum and the "Sustain" group of food experts that I spoke about on Report.

I shall not take up the time of the House by spelling out those objectives in full. In any case, my noble friend has a copy. However, in summary, they cover many of the aspects of nutritional policy which we discussed during earlier stages of the Bill. One group of objectives relates to food labelling, nutrition and health claims, and covers, in those areas, general policy, research, legislation, codes of practice and public information.

The other group, which I read out at Report stage, relates to the nutrient content of foods and the diet as a whole, including monitoring and surveillance, securing expert scientific advice, defining a healthy and balanced diet and the provision of practical guidance on nutritional aspects of the food chain. I am aware that the food standards agency will delegate some of those activities to the Department of Health. However, it would be interesting if my noble friend could say how far the objectives for the food standards agency, which is what the Government have in mind, tally with this list. In many aspects the list is identical to the objectives for nutrition which are given in Chapter 5.11 of the White Paper, which we discussed on the first day of the Grand Committee.

Finally, I take this opportunity to ask my noble friend to describe in a little more detail the explanatory papers on the role of the food standards agency, which she told us will be issued with the Bill when it becomes law, or so I understood. I ask her also to describe the make-up and remit of the various concordats which will be formed to assist the smooth-working of the agency. For example, will there be an opportunity for consultation before those concordats are finalised? I beg to move.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for raising these issues about which, rightly, he has been tenacious in our debates so far. I am also grateful to him for making clear that his amendments have been tabled as probing amendments should the Government not feel able to accept them. I believe my noble friend may have read the same newspaper as I did, which told me that today is stress-awareness day. He is obviously doing his bit to lower my stress levels by assuring me that he will not press amendments which we cannot accept.

Although I understand very well my noble friend's reasons for wishing to insert the phrase "food standards" and adding it to the phrase,

    "food safety or other interests of consumers in relation to food",

I hope he will agree that the Short Title of the Bill makes it abundantly clear that the Bill relates to food standards.

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The serious issue raised by my noble friend is the scope of the agency's activities and the concern expressed by him and by many others outside the House that the food standards agency should not only take action in matters which relate purely to food safety or the microbiological safety of food.

I note my noble friend's concern that the current wording appears to give food safety greater emphasis and that other interests of consumers may seem to be of secondary importance. We have discussed the reasons behind the drafting at some length and I can assure him that that is not the case.

Noble Lords who have taken part in the debates on the Bill will not be surprised to hear me reiterate that the phrase,

    "food safety or other interests of consumers in relation to food",

covers all those interests of consumers, including labelling--an issue that we shall turn to later--nutrition and so on. At other stages of the Bill we have had detailed discussions about how to make that more explicit. I was grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, for pointing us in the direction of a statement of objectives and practices as an appropriate place to make the remit of the agency clearer and to elaborate on its objectives. I have indicated that we intend to do that with respect to nutrition as well as other matters.

Today my noble friend mentioned the ideas put forward by the National Heart Forum. As he said, he has kindly sent me a copy of the note that that organisation has prepared of possible objectives for the agency. That is a positive contribution which, as he pointed out, I may well use, as much of it accords exactly with proposals in the White Paper.

The statement of objectives and practices will be a matter for the agency itself. I hope that it will reassure my noble friend to know that we shall consult in more detail on that statement. It would be helpful to have discussions with the National Heart Forum on those matters. If the forum wishes, I shall ensure that such a meeting takes place.

My noble friend asked about the explanatory material to be published. That is the statement of objectives and practices which will be produced by the agency within three months of the first meeting. I do not expect that to be an ex cathedra pronouncement. I expect the statement of objectives and practices to give bodies such as the National Heart Forum an opportunity to contribute.

The concordats will be working documentation between the agency and the department and cannot be finalised until the agency comes into being next spring. However, we shall have discussions on the general principles that should be in those internal documents. I have made it clear that I believe that the specific issue of the division of responsibility for matters relating to nutrition should be addressed in those concordats. On that basis, I hope that my noble friend will feel reassured that we are not narrowly defining the remit of the new agency, that it will be concerned with

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standards as well as safety and that the issues relating to nutrition, which are important, will be covered adequately.

Lord Rea: My Lords, my noble friend has come up trumps with more or less the words that I had hoped that she would utter. I shall read exactly what she said in Hansard before giving it 100 per cent approval. My colleagues in the National Heart Forum will be pleased to know that they still may have a role to play in the future design of the food standards agency. At this stage I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 2:

Before Clause 6, insert the following new clause--


(" . The Agency has a duty to require that all food products are accurately labelled with a complete list of ingredients, whether they are genetically modified, the country of origin and system of production of each major ingredient.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 2. I shall also speak to Amendment No. 5 in my name and refer to government Amendment No. 16. I believe that it is in order for me to do that.

The issue of labelling is confusing. In my store cupboard all the wines carry labels showing the country of origin. Most of the bottles indicate the types of grapes and the region in which they were grown. The more expensive wines have labels that tell me precisely where the wine was bottled, while others state for whom it was bottled and in which country. I find that labels on cheeses may or may not tell me from where they come, although Cheddar appears to be predominantly from England, Ireland or New Zealand. Meat is often British, but occasionally English, Scottish or New Zealand. Meat in tins tends to come from York or Argentina.

To some extent I cannot understand what the fuss is all about. If so many people can show me where their products have been produced and what they contain, why cannot everybody? At the Report stage the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, explained the origin rules for organic produce. On 27th October Nick Brown issued another consultation document on the proposed new guidelines on the labelling of the origin of food. Why do we still have to consult? British farmers know that their products are good, safe and clean, and they would like the country of origin on labels to be compulsory. Consumers appear to be convinced that British food is the best and many of them would buy more of it if it were identifiable. It is true that some food manufacturers or large retailers find it easier to be without such rules.

On Monday I returned from the poultry industry conference, where I was delighted to learn that the campaign to label British eggs with the lion brand has been highly successful. Eighty per cent of British consumers know what the lion brand means and

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choose eggs stamped with the little lion in preference to others. Indeed, the lion has recently been awarded the International Golden Egg.

European labelling harmonisation is supposed to sort out the muddle, but in another place Jeff Rooker stated that the country of origin labelling of beef is expected to become compulsory from the year 2000. If that is true of beef, why not of pork, lamb, poultry and other foods? Why not this year, rather than next year?

It appears to us that the Bill lays a duty on the agency to move forward the whole question of standardisation of labels and to include a requirement for the universal country of origin. No one in Europe has grounds for complaint.

Since our debate at Report stage much has been said in the news. I have here three MAFF news releases which underline my argument on the need for my amendments to be considered seriously. The first was issued on 25th October and stated that consumers need to be aware of welfare standards. "Hooray", say I. I shall not read what Joyce Quin said, but she referred to British pig production.

The second news release, dated 27th October, dealt with the proposed new guidelines on labelling the origin of foods. It states that at the Great British Food Conference Nick Brown announced that he had three objectives. He said:

    "I am determined to tackle the issue of misleading labels. I have three objectives:

    To promote informed consumer choice by encouraging clearer origin information on food labels about the real place of origin--not just the place of processing or place of slicing but also, where it would be valuable, the origin of ingredients.

    To clamp down on misleading place of origin descriptions.

    In the longer term, to press for changes to international rules to ensure that consumers are given accurate and unambiguous information about the true origin of the foods they are buying".

The third news release, published on 28th October, states that Joyce Quin welcomed the £5 million to help farmers and growers to improve their marketing and competitiveness.

During the passage of the Bill through the House, noble Lords have had four debates on labelling. The Minister and other noble Lords will be thankful that I shall not repeat all that I have said on those past four occasions. However, it would be wrong of me not to stress again the importance of labelling. My two amendments--I know that the Minister may not be able to accept them--highlight the problems that the consumers face. We feel strongly that they should be on the face of the Bill.

Having said that, I thank the Minister for replying to me following our Report stage, and for proposing her own Amendment No. 16, although I have to say that it does not go as far as I would have liked. Nevertheless, the Government have recognised the immense pressure that has been brought from all sides of the House, and from consumers outside this Chamber, on the need to have labelling on the face of the Bill. I am therefore very grateful to the Minister for agreeing that labelling is a matter of much importance to consumers. I have made a strong case for this to be

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reflected in the Bill. I am indeed grateful to her for tabling her amendment, although we feel strongly that her amendments perhaps do not go far enough. However, at this stage I will wait to hear her reply.

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