30 March 2005
Deficiencies in food information must be addressed, say MPs
The Government must act now to address deficiencies in the provision of food information to consumers by taking a more co-ordinated 'cross-government' approach, headed up by a single department, according to a report published today by the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. Currently, responsibility for food policy is divided between at least six different government departments and agencies.
The Committee commends the Food Standards Agency on the work it has done towards providing clear advice to consumers about food safety issues, but calls for a speedy Government investigation into the events which allowed the illegal dye Sudan 1 to make its way into the UK food chain. The Committee is particularly concerned that the Government should establish the length of time for which the adulteration of chilli powder is likely to have gone undetected and why UK authorities did not detect this adulteration in a product used so extensively in UK food processing.
The Committee calls for the mandatory provision of extensive nutrition information on all labelling of prepacked foods, and urges the Government to prioritise the necessary legislative change during the UK's forthcoming presidency of the EU. The Committee wants to see provision of guideline daily amounts for energy and individual nutrients required on labels. In order to assist consumers in making healthier choices, the Committee recommends that the Government take speedy action to introduce a UK-wide system of front-of-label nutrition 'signposting', which sets out a food's health credentials 'at a glance'.
The Committee is disappointed that the major supermarket chains seem to have made little effort to encourage their suppliers to improve nutrition labelling and signposting, although they have made good progress with their own-brand labels.
Since WTO rules prevent legislation for labelling on ethical concerns about food production, the food industry should demonstrate its own willingness to provide this information. The Committee comments that failure to do so could well be interpreted by consumers as a failure to engage with the ethical implications of the industry's activities.
Food assurance schemes
The Committee calls for the Government to ensure the legitimacy of the standard-assurance logos on the origins and contents of food by setting up a central register of food assurance schemes.
The MPs identify a "gaping hole" in the compulsory provision of information to consumers about non-prepacked foods- that is, much of the food sold in the catering or eating out sectors, as well as food such as that sold loose from a supermarket's delicatessen counter, loose fruit, vegetables and baked goods. The eating out sector must take responsibility for developing a system to highlight healthy choices to consumers. The Government should work with the sector to develop a 'green light only' nutrition signposting system.
The MPs call for more clarity and consistency in food information requirements so that industry gets a clear and workable signal. Defra should take the lead on food information policy which is currently divided between at least six departments and should also take on the Public Service Agreement (PSA) target of cutting rising obesity as a joint responsibility. Local authorities must also have sufficient resources to prosecute food manufacturers and retailers who have the budgets to defend their interests, when they breach food labelling laws.
The Committee emphasises that any change in food labelling must go hand in hand with better education about food, and that little will be achieved without corresponding changes in industry practice regarding food pricing, portion sizes and product placement.
The Chairman of the Sub-Committee which conducted the inquiry, Mr Mark Lazarowicz MP, said: "Although there is now considerable interest about how we can promote a healthy diet, consumers will have great difficulty in making healthy choices if they don't have adequate information about the food they buy. Although there have been some steps taken by the food industry to improve its record, in far too many cases food information is not made available to consumers in a form which is of any use to them. We need a comprehensive scheme of food labelling, not token gestures by the industry."
NOTES FOR EDITORS
The report follows an inquiry conducted in 2004. The inquiry was announced in our press notice of 17 March 2004 (available on our website). The Committee appointed a Sub-Committee to conduct the inquiry, under the chairmanship of Mr Mark Lazarowicz MP.
The Sub-Committee received written evidence from a number of interested parties. It took oral evidence from: the Institute of Food Research; the Consumers' Association (now known as Which?); the Medical Research Council's Centre for Human Nutrition Research; Sustain; the National Farmers' Union for England and Wales; Product Authentication Inspectorate; The Co-op; Tesco; Asda; Whitbread Restaurants; McDonald's; the Royal Agricultural College, Gloucester; the Food and Drink Federation; the Trading Standards Institute; the Food Standards Agency and the Minister for Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy, Lord Whitty of Camberwell, together with Defra officials.