HC Deb 19 December 1985 vol 89 cc555-7
7. Mr. Alton

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will convene an inquiry to study and recommend methods of standard and informative food labelling.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Peggy Fenner)

My right hon. Friend the Minister is advised on such matters by the Food Advisory Committee, which is composed of independent experts. Its reports, and any proposals for legislation, are subject to consultation with all interested parties.

Mr. Alton

How long will it be before the Ministry implements the findings of its research, carried out in conjunction with the National Consumer Council, into whether clearer labelling should be provided on canned food, and especially should show levels of added sugar and salt? If that does not happen, would not the Ministry be open to the charge that it is simply pandering and kowtowing to the interests of the canned food manufacturers?

Mrs. Fenner

No. My right hon. Friend made it very clear that we accepted the report of COMA. We have been holding consultations to find the most practical way to implement it. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that we also carried out a consumer survey to assess the needs of consumers in relation to labelling. We are considering all the comments made and hope to bring forward proposals shortly.

Mr. Coombs

Is my hon. Friend aware that 60 per cent. of those responsible for food shopping who were interviewed in a recent market research survey said that they considered the health aspect of food when deciding what to buy? Against that background, and also because many supermarkets, including Tesco, are now introducing this food labelelling, does she recognise that there is a need for the utmost dispatch in introducing labelling proposals?

Mrs. Fenner

I agree with my hon. Friend, which is why we are currently considering proposals for legislation that will provide a statutory requirement to indicate on labels the fat content in food. We are also looking at a format for nutrition labelling. We are aware that although COMA did not recommend that, a great deal of interest is being displayed both by consumers and manufacturers. If nutrition labelling is taken up, we want it to be in a form that will help rather than confuse the consumer.

Mr. Ashley

Is the Minister aware that even when additives are considered generally to be safe, some individuals suffer adverse reactions to them? Are those people not entitled to protection like everyone else? Therefore, should not all main additives be shown on the label?

Mrs. Fenner

Indeed, and the Food Act 1984 requires that. The lead-in time means that by 1 July 1986 all additives must be shown on labels, whether in number, description, or both.

There is no proof that there is a connection between allergenicity and food additives. My Department has commissioned research into connections between adverse reactions and food and food additives.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith

Does my hon. Friend agree that it might be a sensible step, which would benefit housewives and other shoppers, if the major food stores explained the meaning of the E number on labels?

Mrs. Fenner

My Ministry produces a book which, if we were not giving it away, would be counted as its best seller. It is entitled "Look at the Label" and sets out all the E numbers. We are considering what other systems of educational information should be provided.

Mr. John

I hope the Minister accepts that people do not want to go shopping with a ready reckoner to discover what additives are in food. Will she confirm that when regulations are made they will not be two-tier—one, the statutory labelling of fat content, and the other an optional requirement to show added sugar, salt and fibre?

Mrs. Fenner

COMA recommended statutory labelling of fat content. We have responded to that and proposals will be put before the House. COMA did not recommend statutory nutrition labelling. If we introduced that, we might have some difficulty within the EEC because of distortion of trade.

Mr. Gregory

Will my hon. Friend confirm that we are fully behind the EEC Commission's proposal to include in the revision of the 1973 chocolate directive a vegetable content of up to 5 per cent.? Will she bear in mind that for almost half a century the United Kingdom confectionery trade has included that content and ensure that we do not follow the French and Belgian Members of the European Assembly in the spirit of the fruit-and-nut case in going along that line, which would reduce jobs, reduce choice and reduce United Kingdom confectionery in the EEC market?

Mrs. Fenner

Yes. I give my hon. Friend that assurance.

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