HC Deb 13 May 1968 vol 764 cc987-96

10.16 p.m.

Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)

I beg to move. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Fish and Meat Spreadable Products Regulations 1968 (S.I. 1968, No. 430), dated 15th March, 1968, a copy of which was laid before this House on 27th March, be annulled. I am glad to see the Parliamentary Secretary in his place because, as he knows, this Instrument has caused a certain amount of anxiety to a firm in my constituency—Farquhar, North & Co. of St. Mary Cray—which has been manufacturing fish and meat pastes since 1890. I have had some correspondence with the hon. Gentleman on behalf of this firm about one part of the Regulations to which the company takes strong objection.

The Instrument has been discussed at length between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Food Manufacturers' Federation. I understand that all the points raised at the beginning have been cleared up, with this one exception. In this case, the Ministry has insisted on increasing the meat content of meat pastes from 55 per cent. to 70 per cent against all the advice of the trade and Farquhar, North & Co.

I should, perhaps, also explain that the food manufacturers have no objection to the Regulations from the point of view of fish pastes, because the content must be as high as 70 Per cent. for reasons of palatability. Apparently if the content is allowed to go as low as 55 per cent. it is soon noticed; and, in fact, fish pastes on the market already conform to the figures in the Regulations.

The manufacturers do not quarrel with the 70 per cent. minimum content of meat which the Regulations prescribe for meat spreads. They accept paragraphs like 4(1)(h): … "chopped X in jelly" "minced X in jelly" or "flaked X in jelly", the description being completed by inserting at "X" the name of any meat… and 5(1)(f): … "potted X and Y", "chopped X and Y", "minced X and Y" or "flaked X and Y", the description being completed by inserting at "X" the name of any fish and at "Y" the name of another main ingredient… It all sounds rather like what a manthematician might have for tea.

It is only this one aspect of meat pastes to which manufacturers have taken objection. I do not understand why the Minister, having obtained such a wide measure of agreement with the manufacturers, has chosen to fall out with them on this one issue. I have not been able to elicit the reasons as a result of my correspondence. The main reason—indeed, what I gather to be the only one—is that this increase from 55 per cent. to 70 per cent. was recommended by the Food Standards Committee in its 1965 Report on fish and meat pastes. In correspondence, the Minister referred me to that Report, which I have carefully read, but the reading of it does not advance any argument, except the negative one that both pastes used to have the same compositional standard before the war and that it was thought a good idea that equality of standards should be restored.

When I wrote to the Minister at the end of last year the Parliamentary Secretary replied and he merely paraphrased that Report of the Food Standards Committee and added that it had always been agreed that the standard should be raised to 70 per cent. at a convenient opportunity. I take issue with that. It certainly had not been agreed with this firm and, as far as I know, neither had it been with the Food Manufacturers' Federation. The whole basis of the Minister's case, following the line of the Food Standards Committee, is that if one kind of paste has a minimum content of 70 per cent. of its principal ingredient, all other pastes must fall into line.

When I wrote a second time to the hon. Gentleman asking him to justify this increase on objective criteria, he replied on 1st January and part of his letter stated: It is difficult to see exactly what would be the wholly objective criteria; the Committee reached the conclusion on meat paste, just as in other reports they have made recommendations for the proper minimum meat contents of sausages, meat pies, luncheon meat and other meat products. The hon. Gentleman is not arguing that there is a particular magic in the figure of 70 per cent., but it has been applied to fish products and apparently the Ministry is making this fall into line.

I hope that it will be generally agreed that the real criterion is the palatability of these products whether 55 per cent., 70 per cent. or whatever figure is in the Regulations. For chicken and ham spreads the minimum content has to be 70 per cent., because it is found that if one goes lower the stuff does not taste very nice. The manufacturers, being sensible and wanting to sell chicken and ham paste, have always adhered to the 70 per cent., but they have not found it necessary in the case of meat paste—whose principal ingredient is beef—because in that there is little difference in the taste whether it is 55 per cent. or 70 per cent as laid down. Experience has shown that the public do not notice any difference, because there has been a steadily growing consumption of meat paste with the minimum content of 55 per cent. practically every year since the standard was introduced.

There is no particular magic in 70 per cent. because in other products such as sausages the meat content is far lower. In the Sausage and Other Meat Products Regulations, 1967, a minimum content of 50 per cent. of beef is specified. Apart from the fact that no one has asked for this increase, the main reason why my constituents are opposed is that inevitably their costs will go up. I do not know exactly what this will mean in terms of prices, but one can hardly imagine that there will be increases of half-pennies when the half-penny is shortly to be demonetised. If manufacturers are to recover the additional costs imposed by these Regulations the price of a 2½ oz. jar would go up from 1s. 3d. to 1s. 4d. and the small 1 oz. jar price would go up from 7d. to 8d., an increase of no less than 14 per cent. This may appear to have a very small effect on the cost of living index, but if the Government are serious in wanting to keep prices down, no increase however insignificant should be deliberately provoked by their actions.

I have no doubt that the Minister will argue that since the Regulations will not come into force for three years these economic factors may be neglected, but even if one were to assume that during this breathing space for manufacturers for another three years a higher rate of growth in the economy can be achieved and hence the control of prices will be less essential than it is today, it is wrong to make the Regulations now because of two further considerations. First, if the Minister is prepared to wait for three years it would be surely practicable to announce the decision now but to defer making the Regulations until 1970 and to make them conditional on the economic revival of the country between now and then.

Secondly, I do not think the Minister may quite have appreciated that in order to meet the deadline of March, 1971, manufacturers will need to begin packing for dispatch by early 1970 with the result that their costs will increase in only two years' time, not three. I sincerely hope that we shall have recovered from our present economic difficulties by early 1970, but I do not think it would be at all safe to bank on it. There is nothing whatever in the existing Regulations to prevent manufacturers from offering a choice of meat pastes based on a 55 per cent. meat content and a 70 per cent. meat content to the public.

The fact that very few have actually done so proves that, as the Food Manufacturers' Federation said in a letter to the Ministry last September: there is very little difference in flavour between them. The Federation offered to send samples of meat paste with a 55 per cent. and a 70 per cent. content to Ministers for them to taste and to verify that there is no difference. I shall be interested to hear whether the hon. Gentleman accepted the offer and whether he has actually sampled these meat pastes and can solemnly assure the House that he can tell the difference. It is rather like "Stork" and butter. The hon. Gentleman would have to admit that he was not able to tell the difference.

Mr. Speaker

Order. "Stork" and butter are just outside these Regulations.

Mr. Lubbock

Butter is put into some of these pastes, Sir, but I will not pursue that point. What I have been discussing is a product which is bought widely by economical housewives and which is very popular with children. It is cheap and simple to use. Thousands of families eat these products every day for their tea, because of their simplicity and cheapness. By forcing the manufacturers to increase their prices as a result of the Regulations, the Minister is acting contrary to the interests of the consumer. I hope that, in the light of the arguments I have advanced, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will withdraw the Regulations.

10.25 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Hoy)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) for the way in which he has raised this subject. As he has said, we have had correspondence about it over a considerable period. I do not mind taking part in the debate. I thought that the hon. Gentleman gave the whole argument away in his concluding sentence, because he said that there was very little difference in the taste. If there is very little difference in the taste, the hon. Gentleman cannot argue that this change will curtail sales. I leave the hon. Gentleman with the thought that his concluding sentence defeated his own argument.

Mr. Lubbock

What about the price?

Mr. Hoy

I will deal with that argument later. I have just dealt with the argument on taste. Having demolished that argument, I will move on. The argument on these Regulations, as the hon. Gentleman has rightly said, has been centred on the minimum meat content of meat paste, but they cover much more ground than this and before turning to the main issue I should like to say a few words about the purpose and general scope of the Regulations.

The Regulations are part of the series we have made on meat products in the course of the last year, the others being the Canned Meat Product Regulations, the Sausage and Other Meat Product Regulations, and the Meat Pie and Sausage Roll Regulations.

These four sets of Regulations provide, in our view, a good and flexible control over the composition and labelling of the whole range of meat products and are thus a major step forward in consumer protection in this field. The purpose of all these Regulations has been to give the consumer products of a good basic standard correctly and informatively labelled.

The labelling of meat and fish pastes and similar products has always been a matter of considerable difficulty, particularly the problem of distinguishing a product which consists entirely of the meat or fish mentioned in its name from one which has a meat or fish which gives it its character and flavour but also contains other meat or fish. The 1951 Code of Practice dealt with the problem by calling the fully named-meat product ham paste or ham spread and the mixed product meat paste ham or meat spread ham. This distinction was very confusing and probably very few consumers indeed understood it.

On the advice of the Food Standards Committee, we have decided on a simple distinction. The named-meat product only will be called "ham spread" and the mixed product "ham paste". It is true that these distinctions may not be obvious to the consumer at first glance, but we hope that in the three years before the Regulations come into force consumers will come to understand this very simple distinction.

We have also laid down names and composition for the other types of spreadable products such as potted meat, chopped meat, minced meat, chopped meat in jelly, dressed crab and similar products to which butter has been added. We have, I think, produced a reasonable solution to the difficult problem of controlling the meaning of the word "pâté", which rather baffled the Food Standards Committee.

The provisions extend very much further than the existing Meat Paste and Fish Paste Regulations of 1951. They lay down simple names which will be of benefit to the consumer. They will also assist manufacturers by bringing clarity into this rather vexed subject.

The provisions of these Regulations have been generally welcomed by all concerned, with the exception of the provision on minimum meat content, to which I now come. The restoration of the 70 per cent. minimum meat content of meat paste has been welcomed by all, or nearly all, the interests consulted except the manufacturers. When the meat paste Regulations were made in 1951, there was a tacit understanding that, as soon as the immediate difficulties of meat supplies were at an end, the prewar parity between meat and fish pastes would be restored and the level of meat in meat paste should be raised to 70 per cent. This was to be done as soon as the time was ripe. The question has always been, is the time ripe?

The attitude of the manufacturers' organisations has changed somewhat on this. They have always said, "Perhaps we ought to be good, but not just now". We take a rather different view. Only since the proposals for Regulations were published have they positively opposed raising the meat content. Whether they have entirely abandoned their view that the time may one day be ripe, I am not quite sure.

Our attitude on the matter is simple and, I suggest, sensible. The problem has twice been considered by the Food Standards Committee. In looking at the question of the right names for these products, when reviewing food labelling, the Committee could not ignore the apparent anomaly that the minimum fish content of fish paste was set at 70 per cent., whereas the minimum meat content of meat paste had gone down to the very low figure of 55 per cent. Even though it was not strictly within its terms of reference in the labelling review, the Food Standards Committee felt bound to draw attention to the question and to recommend that the meat content should be raised to 70 per cent.

Mr. Lubbock

If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that there is this connection between fish and meat pastes, why not a connection between meat paste and sausages, for which the Regulations lay down a meat content of only 50 per cent.?

Mr. Hoy

If the hon. Gentleman will just wait a moment, I am drawing attention to that comparison, which was one which the Food Standards Committee made. I am telling the House what that Committee said.

To us it did not seem proper to implement this recommendation—which was made in 1964—before asking the Committee to make a full separate study of the whole question of the composition and labelling of all fish and meat spreadable products. This the Committee undertook. After careful consideration of all aspects of the problem, it again recommended raising the meat content of meat pastes to 70 per cent. This was the second time the Committee had done so, the second time at our special request when we had asked it to examine the matter once more.

Thus, we had a recommendation from the Food Standards Committee, after really mature consideration, that we should take action, action which for more than 15 years had been recognised by everyone as sensible to take at a suitable opportunity. It is undeniable that the level of 70 per cent. of meat will give the consumer the likelihood of a better product in every way.

It is true that the amount of meat is only one of the factors which affect quality of meat pastes and it is more crucial in some cases than in others, but, if we are to make one single simple provision, I am sure that this is the one which will best ensure that the consumer gets meat paste of reasonable quality, a product which one can really say justifies the name meat paste.

A significant number of pastes already meet the proposed new level, not just the one mentioned by the hon. Member, and they are already sold in a fairly wide price range. I do not think, therefore, that when it comes into force in three years' time this change is likely to have a very significant effect on prices to the consumer, certainly not compared to the benefit he will obtain.

This is a decision that has been put off and put off for the past 17 years. We did not think it right to put it off any longer. Successive Governments have received representations that a change should be made. We think it wrong to countenance any more delay. Whenever that change was made it could be argued that the time was inappropriate, and it is unlikely that the time will ever come when it could not be said that a little more delay would probably be prudent. We decided to make a firm decision now, but to allow an unusually long time—three years—before that decision took effect, so that changes in recipes and so on could be planned in advance and made smoothly. The long period of preparation will give plenty of time for any economic effects to be dealt with. This is surely the right decision.

The hon. Gentleman disagrees, but I find that a little difficult to understand. Inspired by the dynamism of his party, he needs more than 20 years to deal with meat paste, apparently. One hesitates to guess the speed with which his party would deal with more weighty matters. But perhaps I misunderstand the hon. Gentleman. By the time this comes into force, 20 years will have elapsed—

Mr. Lubbock

The difference between the Minister and me is that I do not believe in legislating just for the sake of it. He is not correct in saying that there has been a widespread demand. I do not have people queueing up at that door of my advice bureau asking for the content of meat in meat paste to be raised forthwith. Therefore, I think that the Regulations are unnecessary.

Mr. Hoy

I am not saying that people are queueing at the hon. Gentleman's door. I am only saying that he has one manufacturer queueing at his door, telling him that the Regulations should not come into force. The manufacturers have a vested interest. I am not objecting to that, but my job must be to protect the consumer, not only in Orpington but throughout Great Britain. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is saying that some firms—and many, if not most, already meet the required standards laid down here—require more than three years to produce a label. I find it difficult to understand, because we have gone out of our way to meet them in this respect. I should have thought that we have proved very tolerant. I can only think that the hon. Gentleman is making this case for that firm, and that it is a case in which he does not have a very great belief, because there has been almost universal agreement that the minimum meat content in the current Regulations is too low. The hon. Gentleman must face up to that.

Further, as the Food Standards Committee said, there is no satisfactory reason why there should be different compositional standards for meat paste and fish paste. The consumer deserves a product with a higher compositional standard, and I think that he wants it. A number of consumers have taken the trouble to say so to us and to others over the years. If the hon. Gentleman reads the reports he will find that to be correct.

The only argument is really about "when?". We think, having started to carry out these long investigations, that it is right to bring them to a conclusion. We recognise the economic difficulties of the present time, and though this is no reason to diminish our endeavours on behalf of the consumer—indeed, quite the reverse—it is sensible to allow a good time before the Regulations come into force. This we have done, and I think that all reasonable and legitimate difficulties have been met. Therefore, I confidently ask the House to reject the Prayer.

Question put and negatived.