HL Deb 03 November 1999 vol 606 cc885-95

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

European labelling harmonisatison 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 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.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, because the Minister has made a concession, for which we are grateful, I would like to help her with a problem that she is likely to face. It would be quite inappropriate for me to say that I do not want to teach my grandmother to suck eggs—it would be more appropriate to say that I do not want to teach my granddaughter to suck eggs —but I have sucked those eggs myself.

In about 1982, we were determined to introduce country-of-origin marking across a whole range of goods. We had tremendous opposition from our partners in the then Community, who said that they would be non-tariff barriers. I consulted very widely with the National Association of Townswomen's Guilds, which also consulted their members widely, and it appeared that they definitely wanted to know the country of origin, not as a non-trade barrier but so that they could recognise certain countries that had a very good reputation for certain goods and not for others. It was very difficult, but we finally did it under the Trades Descriptions Act. It was not quite ultra vires but it was a little shaky in that department.

I subsequently retired from the department happy with the thought that we had got it through. Sadly, at a later date after my departure, our own and other MEPs within the Community decided that they could not continue with it because of the objections.

Having issued those warnings, my final point on this subject relates to the question asked by my noble friend Baroness Byford, "Why only beef?" I can tell her why. It is because other countries are using it as a non-tariff barrier. They believe that if they label it "British beef", nobody will want to buy it. That is the sad truth. We should be able to put it on any of our food goods, not just to blow our own trumpet but because consumers will obviously want to know, for many reasons, the point of origin.

Lord Monson

My Lords, Amendment No. 5 is probably unacceptable for the reasons advanced at Report stage by my noble friend Lady Mar. If I remember correctly, she pointed out that it would mean that every single apple, pear, cauliflower or potato would have to be separately labelled with its ingredients, which is a rather curious way of doing things, and its country or origin, and that would clearly be impossible.

I am not quite so sure about Amendment No. 2. What exactly is a food product? Is an untreated potato or apple a food product? I would have thought not. I would have thought that it was a food pure and simple and that only if it had been converted or treated in some way, such as having been turned into tinned, stewed apple or frozen chips, would it become a food product. Perhaps the noble Baroness would be kind enough to let us have her views about this when she winds up.

3.45 p.m.

Viscount Thurso

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, has pursued the question of labelling with passion and commitment from Second Reading, when she raised it at col. 1790, as indeed did my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones in his intervention; and we both used roughly the same line of attack at Committee stage. However, I felt that we began to part company at Report stage, and my noble friend explained why we felt that the amendments being put forward by the noble Baroness were over-prescriptive. However, that does not detract from the importance of labelling and the requirement that labelling should be on the face of the Bill. It is for that reason that I have put my name to Amendment No. 16. I feel that it has gone a very long way, if not the whole way, towards achieving our aim of having labelling on the face of the Bill.

As the noble Baroness said, labelling is an extremely confusing matter, even before we start to legislate on it. It is my experience that once one starts to legislate, matters often become more confusing rather than less confusing; one legislates in haste and repents at leisure. I therefore prefer the approach of not attempting to be too prescriptive at this final stage of the Bill, but, rather wish to ensure that the agency will be fully aware of its duties in regard to labelling and will take them seriously. I therefore suggest that we should wait for the agency to devise, through proper consultation, a proper regime.

I am grateful to the Minister for having listened to the concerns from both our Benches and for having responded so graciously. I express the hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, will accept that this is as far as we can go at this stage.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, on her tenacity, if nothing else. Noble Lords will know that I do not entirely agree. I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, for his exposition of his and the noble Baroness's amendment, to the extent that consultation will be involved. This is absolutely essential. I have pointed out some of the problems which might arise. If consultation can bring about a certain flexibility in the labelling requirements, that is what we need.

Lord Rowallan

My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lady Byford on her tenacity in this particular department during the course of the Bill. I believe that we have achieved a very good compromise in Amendment No. 16. I am delighted that the "noble" democrat party has, at long last, found itself again in bed with the Government on this particular amendment. At the end of the day, it produces a very sensible compromise. I strongly commend the amendment to the House.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on this amendment. Do the Government accept that the agency would assume that this amendment applies to livestock feed as well as to food designed for direct human consumption?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am grateful for the debate that we have had. In the previous debate on nutrition and in our discussion about labelling, once again two of the major areas of concern that have been emphasised throughout the passage of the Bill through your Lordships' House have been raised.

I have considered very carefully how we can meet some of the very justified concerns on both issues. We have just spoken about the way in which we can make clear the agency's role on nutrition. I said in earlier debates that labelling was a rather different matter. It is already explicitly covered by the legislative framework in the Food Safety Act 1990, as well as being subject to existing EU rules, which gives rise to some of the complications to which the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, referred.

My earlier argument was that because explicit mention is made of this point in the Food Safety Act and because the agency would be responsible for its administration, it is not necessary in this legislation to make explicit the responsibilities in regard to labelling.

The word "tenacious" has been applied to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, by several other Members of your Lordships' House, and I reiterate that. The noble Baroness said with some passion at Report stage that she could not find the word "labelling" on the face of this Bill and that reference back to another piece of legislation was not sufficiently explicit to reassure people, given the concerns and the need to improve labelling in a variety of areas. We have talked today about country of origin labelling, but there are concerns about claims made on labels—the issues of low fat and fat-free have been raised—and the need to be explicit and not to use defensive labelling, for example, when we look at matters involving allergies.

I undertook at Report stage to examine whether there was a way in which we could make clear that the agency's remit covered labelling. My amendment will meet that point. It would add to the interpretation clause—Clause 36—a gloss on the phrase, interests of consumers in relation to food", which is used at several places in the Bill, to make clear that it includes labelling and related matters covered by the regulated provisions of the Food Safety Act.

I explained at Report stage that there are always risks in singling out one specific item from a general definition. It might have the effect of giving pre-eminent importance to one issue while excluding other issues. That is one of the problems with the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. They leave some doubt as to how widely the agency's functions in Clauses 6 and 7 should be interpreted in relation to matters other than labelling. Our amendment is drafted in such a way that it does not have to have a restrictive or exclusive effect.

However, I hope that it makes crystal clear to anyone reading this piece of legislation that we are concerned with labelling.

There are other important reasons why we cannot support Amendment No. 5. The amendment suggests that the legislative competence is more simple than it is. We have EU competencies in this area, and the reason the noble Baroness's wine is labelled so explicitly in relation to country of origin is because wine is subject to separate labelling rules under the EU common organisation of the market for wine. We therefore encounter those sorts of difficulties.

As the noble Lord, Lord Monson, pointed out, there are also difficulties with the phraseology in respect of food products. The amendment was presumably intended to cover manufactured or processed food, but the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, talked of a topical concern in relation to the labelling of meat, which is not a processed product. We have to work within the labelling regime laid down in EC legislation; we cannot act unilaterally; nor would it necessarily be in the interests of United Kingdom consumers or of our food industry if we had different labelling rules from those that apply in the EU.

As I have made clear, this is wider than a European issue; we must look at the international dimension. That is not to say that we are in any way complacent that the present situation, particularly in relation to country of origin labelling, is satisfactory. That is why we have taken action—the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, was kind enough to outline that action—to ensure, for example, that there is no misleading country of origin information given, particularly on pig products, but also other products sold in this country.

I must take issue with the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, as by implication did the noble Countess, Lady Mar, as to why we have to consult. In your Lordships' House we would be in a great deal of trouble if we did not consult on these issues. For example, producers might well wish to put forward the impracticality of listing every ingredient and the country of origin on a label.

We are trying to tackle, through my amendment, the legislative position so that it is explicit on the face of the Bill that labelling comes within the remit of the agency. But noble Lords will agree that the proof of the pudding will be in the eating; that is, what the agency actually does in this sphere. The Bill provides the framework of powers and duties within which it will act. It will be for the agency to set out a strategy as to how it will take that forward; it will neglect labelling at its peril. As noble Lords have pointed out, consumers want better labelling. They may well also need the methods to deconstruct labeling—an issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, when referring to the American document that helps consumers to understand labelling.

I believe that we have shown the way forward by the steps we are currently taking on country of origin labelling and the steps we are taking in the EU in relation to GM labelling and GM in animal foods. That is a separate issue but equally important and one on which we want to make progress. Again, the agency will have a responsibility but will have to operate within a legislative framework that is not necessarily merely domestic. That will be a fruitful area for an early initiative by the agency. We are looking carefully at what preparatory work can be done to get such an initiative off the ground. Two open meetings on labelling are being held by the Food Advisory Committee, which will be a useful input into the matter.

In the light of everything that is in the Bill and the amendment brought forward today, together with the commitments we have given, I have no doubt that the agency will work to deliver a real increase in consumer information and choice through improvements in labelling and advice. I pay tribute to the strong case put by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, to see labelling mentioned on the face of the Bill. We responded to that. We are also taking action within a European and international context to take forward, in particular, improvements in labelling on country of origin. On that basis I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment and support our amendment, also supported by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, for which I am grateful.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her full response to my two amendments. Perhaps I can pick up on a couple of points, in all humility. I was not saying that consultation should not take place. I was trying to suggest that we have been consulting and consulting and not moving forward. I would hate anyone to think I do not believe in consultation; obviously I do. But there comes a time when one must move forward. I am aware of the meetings the Food Advisory Committee has in hand at the moment and I welcome them.

The noble Baroness spoke of labelling and touched on the GM situation in response to her noble friend Lord Hardy. In fact, on the organic side one does not label country of origin. Because of the nature of the way the organic system is operated, we can trace where the product has come from. Perhaps I can hand that issue back to the Government for their consideration. I do not want us to end up with lots of different systems, which is another worry.

The Minister also said that she was referring to "meat" particularly as meat. Obviously meat coming to this country is as of a piece of meat, but it is processed here. Therefore, after being processed, some of that food will still carry the British label. That is the one aspect which greatly concerns many people both inside and outside the Chamber.

However, I do not want to nit-pick today because this is not the moment so to do. I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for having met us to discuss these matters, and to other noble Lords for being so generous in their comments. I am trying to find the right words to say; indeed, I am slightly embarrassed. This is a very serious issue. That is why I have been so "tenacious", to use the Minister's expression, in trying to get something on the face of the Bill.

I am immensely grateful to the Minister. Perhaps I may also express my thanks to her for tabling her amendment, which we on these Benches are very happy to support. I wish the House to know that my difficulty was that I did not have sight of the amendment until it was too late to attach my name to it. However, at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6 [Development of food policy and provision of advice, etc. to public authorities]:

[Amendment No. 3 not moved.]

Clause 7 [Provision of advice, information and assistance to other persons]:

[Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 not moved.]

Clause 8 [Acquisition and review of information]:

[Amendment No. 6 not moved.]

Clause 9 [General functions in relation to animal feedingstuffs]:

[Amendment No. 7 not moved.]

4 p.m.

Clause 11 [Power of entry for persons carrying out observations]:

The Earl of Radnor moved Amendment No. 8: Page 5, line 11, at end insert ("(including conditions relating to hygiene precautions to be taken while exercising powers in pursuance of the authorisation)").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, perhaps I may take this amendment and Amendment No. 9 together, although I shall move the second one separately. I do so simply because they are absolutely identical in their wording. They stem from my fear that although these authorised people with written permission, and so on, who will make such visits—first, to observe and, secondly, to monitor and, if necessary, take action—will be subject to fairly stringent rules, such rules are very unspecific. Having a small knowledge of the matter, my fear is that they might offend against the rules of hygiene which apply in some of the plants they visit.

I do not think anyone would dream of breaking the law, or anything of that sort. Indeed, there are many inspectorates in our country; they are all probably extremely good and well behaved. However, the point I made in earlier debates was that the law is not necessarily the final consideration in a plant where one might be making pork pies—or, in my case, processing fish. We all have to keep to the law, but it is important to obey the rules that are so often laid down by the purchasers. Very often these days the purchasers are the supermarkets, which, I believe, sell something like 70 per cent of our food. Their rules tend to be very stringent. Moreover, if an operator breaks those rules, they soon find out, or soon might find out. As I have said many times, a business can be seriously harmed by the withdrawal of custom from one of these big organisations or perhaps from a series of smaller ones.

The wording of the amendments is perfectly simple. I was grateful to be invited by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, to discuss this matter to see whether we could find a sensible meeting point. I believe that we have done so by way of the wording of the amendments which refers to, conditions relating to hygiene precautions to be taken while exercising powers in pursuance of the authorisation".

I believe that wording to be permissive, not mandatory. When I took the matter away and thought about it, I could see all sorts of difficulties in a mandatory situation. I was very grateful to receive help in drafting the amendments. I think that I may have been driving the Public Bill Office fairly mad by drafting a series of amendments myself. That pleased me but it was not achieving the meeting point that we were seeking.

I believe that in this important matter we have struck the right note with the amendments. I hope that they will be looked upon favourably by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. I beg to move.

Viscount Thurso

My Lords, it is my understanding that these amendments are acceptable to the Government. If they had to have a label as to area of origin, it would not be surprising if they were acceptable to the Government. I congratulate the noble Earl on having been so tenacious right from the very first informal meeting we had. Indeed, through every stage he has stuck to his guns; and very good guns they were. Having told the noble Earl that I could not support him if he divided the House on Report, I am extremely glad that he has achieved a compromise that is satisfactory in his eyes. We on these Benches offer him our full support.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I express my support for my noble friend Lord Radnor. As has been said, he has raised this issue at every stage of the Bill's proceedings. Indeed, both he and I gave exact examples of where businesses could find themselves in very difficult circumstances if basic hygiene rules which applied to their operations were not observed by persons who might visit their property. I am extremely delighted to think that the Minister may be able to accept this compromise. I, too, congratulate my noble friend on his persistence in getting what is a very important provision on the face of the Bill.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, perhaps I may join the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, in expressing my gratitude to the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, for bringing forward these two amendments. We discussed the matter in some detail on Report, especially the need to ensure that authorised persons, and those accompanying them, take proper hygiene precautions before exercising the powers of entry.

As I said on Report, this is a very important issue. We agree that it would be completely unacceptable for any officer of the agency to put a business at risk by behaving unreasonably or carelessly or by failing to take the proper hygiene precautions. However, at that time, we had some difficulty with the way that the noble Earl had drafted his amendment. I am glad to say that my noble friend and I subsequently had a very helpful discussion with the noble Earl. In the light of that discussion, I am happy to say that the Government entirely support the useful amendments he has now brought forward. They have the effect of ensuring that any authorisation given to use the powers of entry may include a requirement to follow particular conditions to ensure that the necessary hygiene precautions are taken.

I know that the noble Earl wishes to have some certainty that appropriate hygiene rules will be followed. I want to give him an assurance that any authorisations issued by the agency under these provisions will include conditions that ensure authorised officers follow the precautions already laid down for enforcement officers in Code of Practice 9, which I mentioned on Report. That code requires officers to observe, any reasonable food safety precautions which are required by the company or organisation under inspection". I am happy to give the noble Earl that commitment.

This means that the authorisation itself, which the authorised officer has to show on request, will indicate that he should follow any reasonable rules which are in place. I believe that that will give the noble Earl the kind of reassurance that he seeks. I can also assure him that the agency will ensure that any accompanying person—another matter raised on Report—will also follow the same rules. As I mentioned previously, the accompanying person is likely to be a food hygiene official of the European Commission's food and veterinary office, who would be accompanying the agency's official in order to audit the UK's compliance with EU directives. I believe that such an official would have a particular interest in making sure that proper hygiene practices were followed, even if those were stricter than the requirements of the law.

When we discussed this matter previously we talked mainly about the powers of entry in Clause 14, which refers to the monitoring enforcement action of enforcement authorities. However, as the noble Earl's amendments make clear, there are similar powers in relation to the powers to carry out observations in Clause 11 and we agree it is sensible that the same provision should be made in both places. This has been an extremely useful debate through all stages of the Bill. I commend the noble Earl's amendments to the House.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 14 [Power of entry for monitoring enforcement action]:

The Earl of Radnor moved Amendment No. 9: Page 7, line 14, at end insert ("(including conditions relating to hygiene precautions to be taken while exercising powers in pursuance of the authorisation)").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

The Countess of Mar moved Amendment No. 10: After Clause 16, insert the following new clause—