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Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I apologise to the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), as I was taken aback when I saw him on my screen launching his Bill. This follows yesterday evening, when some 400 hon. Members either tried to prevent my Adjournment debate or helped it to take place. Procedurally, it has been an interesting 24 hours, but I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for missing his initial pearls of wisdom.
I am a sponsor of the Bill, and I make no apology for saying that I support it. The cause of food labelling needs to be advanced in this place. I was not as active as I should have been with the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), and I shall mention why that failed. However, the need for food labellingin the form of this Bill, future legislation here or European activitiesis proven and the rationale for bringing forward greater controls could not be shown more straightforwardly than by the recent crises in this country.
The previous Bill failed because it was deemed to be in contravention of the treaty of Rome, principally articles 28 to 30. If that is the case, we need to talk to Europe about how we can improve its regulations and legislative powers, as well as what we choose to do here. We must also consider how easy it is to define how we wish to label items. It is accepted that consumers want as much information as they can handle. Even if they do not want to see it on the packaging, there will be occasions when they will want to get information on what is in their products and who produces them.
Rather than getting into the obscurantism of defining exactly in law what needs to be done, we should accept the principle that it is good for the producer and the consumer that we label as effectively as we can and that the only thing that should limit us in doing that is the means by which we can communicate the information.
Three questions must be asked about the proposal. First, can it be done, and, a related issue, why did the previous Bill fail? Secondly, what are the benefits of the Bill and who are the beneficiaries? Thirdly, what can we do in this place and elsewhere? I wish to address the third point.
The hon. Member for Eddisbury has talked about those who stand to gain from their advancement of the software and their knowledge of IT, which could make it possible to label more effectively. He and I have met the company i-label. Previously, providing appropriate traceability from the raw to the finished product, whether it was
The two parts of the Bill involve country of origin labelling and corporate standards. There will always be a debate about how much people want to know exactly what was produced in this country and not elsewhere. I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) in the Chamber, as she agrees that people are more interested in the localisation of food rather than the nation state.
I will not criticise farmersmany of whom I call friendsbut one reason why our farming industry has not done as well as others is that it has not worked hard enough in marketing and producing locally through co-operatives to give local consumers what they seem to want: the knowledge that good-quality food has been produced locally. If we can pull those things together, British farming can go forward.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien: I entirely endorse what the hon. Gentleman says about branding and a sense of identity and confidence. Regionalisation and localisation of source and production must be the right way forward, and there is a derogation within EU law and our domestic food labelling regulations that enable that to take place here and in France where products can be described as coming from Perigord. Country of origin is important because it relates to the jurisdiction of law and regulation in terms of the standards of production. If someone knows that a chicken has come from Thailand, they will know that there have been stories that many hormones have been used there that would be banned in this country. It is right for consumers to have the right to know the country of origin and the EU aspect of regionalisation would not apply in those circumstances.
Mr. Drew: I accept that, and some of us feel strongly that we need to sort out the import situation. I say that with the best of intentions; I do not think that what happened in the past was unacceptable. I attended a briefing at the Labour party conference organised by the National Farmers Union, at which the union's campaign on fair labelling was introduced. It was interesting to hear the different agencies describe honestly some of the problems that they have with searching and impounding. Sometimes, they cannot impound; there are checks and balances within the system, but there are also loopholes. The country of origin issue will not go away, because the import problem will not go away.
Standards have been driven up throughout the EU, and that is a jolly good thing. However, imports from third countries can cause difficulties. We need standardisation but we cannot do that alone. We may be an island but, in some respects, that can lead to more difficulties because there are so many points of entry to this country. There will never be enough resources to constrain what we do not want to see.
We on the Labour Benches can feel some pride in the fact that, through the work of the Food Standards Agency, matters outside this country are moving in our direction. I spoke a week last ThursdayI am not sure whether other Members present today also attended the debatein the debate on the European Food Authority. Although I am not the greatest pro-European on the Labour Benches, I recognise that there is much to be said for standardisation of foodstuffs across the EU, and I take pride in supporting the establishment of the authority. Through the operation of the Food Standards Agency, this country is very much in the lead in that respect. As I said then, the agency plays a pro-active role, and I would like that to be extended.
I have talked to representatives of the agency about labelling. Obviously, it must be careful, because it is an agency of Government. However, it is fair to say that it is fairly relaxed about the need to consider standardising produce. It has launched its own investigation into some of the assurance schemes to ensure that they are what they claim to be. Therefore, the agency is engaged in the area.
We are a pioneer, if not the pioneer, of food standards agencies. People from all parts of Europeindeed, the worldare calling in FSA representatives to find out exactly what we are doing and how we are doing it. If that can help us advance the way in which we consider foodstuffs in Europe, that can only be good. Such action will have to be taken through the route of the wonderfully named Codex Alimentaris. I know little more about it than what it seems to do, but it needs to be transparent and able to ensure that all of Europe moves in the same direction because what happens elsewhere has an impact on us.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) had to leave the Chamber, but his comments on nutrition and why the Bill does not cater for it are worth bearing in mind. Having talked to the FSA, I know, as will my right hon. Friend the Minister, that the matter causes the Government some concern. More and more people are interested in driving up nutritional standards, but the way in which we do that is subject to some debate, both inside and outside the Government.
When the chairman of the FSA, Sir John Krebs, recently addressed the all-party group on food and hygiene, he was honest enough to say that nutrition was one area in which the agency had made less progress than it had hoped to make, and certainly less than it wanted to make. We must learn from that that there are two extremes in the matter: the nanny state, in which everyone is told what they should or should not eat, and a state in which everyone can eat what they like and take the consequences of it. We have heard some amusing interludes on that point.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting and important point. One report produced by the Education and Employment Committee and the Education Sub-Committee, on which I served in the last
Mr. Drew: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We need to approach the matter from several angles; it concerns not just food but health, which is why I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend on the Front Bench, and education. The FSA is at the forefront of efforts in this area. If the Bill can in any way assist us in our relations in Europe, that can only be a good thing.
I cannot do anything other than use this opportunity to talk about another issue raised by Sir John Krebs in response to questioning: genetically modified organisms. I have a long track record of being against GMOs, but taking an exact stance is becoming increasingly difficult as the world moves on.
The issue is interesting because it concerns not just the product but labelling. The FSA has had some difficulty because it has stuck to the perceived line of 1 per cent. tolerance. Some people will know what I am talking about and some may not. Basically, if a food contains less than 1 per cent. of any GMO, it can be labelled GMO-free. That causes some of us difficulty, as such foods are patently not always GMO-free. Technology is not yet capable of assessing not only the traceability of GMOs but the process by which such organisms are created. That is a question of derivatives. I gather that tests are being undertaken, so the issue might become clearer. That shows the difficulty of labelling and where dividing lines should be drawn, but it is no excuse for not labelling.
I know of very few consumers in Stroud who do not want to know whether products contain GMOs. Such knowledge might not make a difference to their consumption. I find it disappointing that people talk a lot about having the right to choose in the matter of animal welfare, but do not always choose the right way. I would like people to choose animal welfare-friendly foods, but all the surveys indicate that welfare is not always the determining factor. More often than not, price, accessibility and so on determine consumer choice, and we must recognise that. Nevertheless, there is no excuse for not labelling honestly and fairly so that we can ensure that the consumer is sovereign. That of course would help producers, too.
Let us consider what will happen as a result of today's debate. As one of the Bill's sponsors, I would obviously like it to go into Committee and for us to be able to test whether Europe is capable of dealing with the issue. If Europe wants to consider legislation at European level, that is fine by me because, at the end of the day, consumers want such knowledge. We know that we have the technology to deliver information, although that may not always appear on a label. Consumers can ask about contents. That has been a key change over the past 18 months, and we know that it will improve.
I can think of very few occasions on which consumers will not want to know exactly what is in their food. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North said, it is nothing less than a life-or-death issue for some people.
I therefore support the Bill. I hope that it will make progress not only in this place, but outside, so that the public know that we are addressing this as a serious issue. More particularly, I hope that Europe takes the matter up and does not get involved in turgid discussions that come up with an answer in five years, because we cannot act too soon. This is an important issue and will not go away. I am a sponsor of the Bill and give it my strong support.