§ 8.46 p.m.
§ Lord Rea rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their response to the Coronary Prevention Group's policy document European Community; Barrier or Scapegoat—an Analysis of the United Kingdom Government's position on Nutritional Labelling.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, after a long and interesting debate, we are going to talk about something which seems to be rather complex if one looks at the title of the Unstarred Question but is in fact relevant to what we have just heard. The noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, has just spoken about the healthy and robust natural environment that we wish to see in this country. I speak so that we can ensure that there are healthy and robust individuals to walk about and enjoy that environment. I ask whether the Government are doing as much as possible in this area to ensure that people in this country have healthy hearts.
§ This Unstarred Question is a sequel to a previous Unstarred Question of three and a half years ago, on 25th July 1984, when I asked the Government for their response to two recently published documents 739 on the prevention of coronary heart disease. These were the Canterbury Report on plans for action to prevent coronary heart disease and the report of COMA, the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy, on Diet and Cardiovascular Disease, both of which had just been published.
§ There is no need to go over the ground again. Suffice it to say that scientific evidence has increasingly confirmed that coronary heart disease—and from now on I shall call it CHD—is a largely preventable condition. There are several risk factors which are quite widely known by the ordinary public thanks to wide media coverage of the issue which was initiated by the Coronary Prevention Group. I have to declare an interest because I am a member of that group, and a further interest that I should declare is that I am executive chairman of the National Forum for Coronary Heart Disease Prevention, a body which co-ordinates the activities of some 30 organisations which have an interest in the topic.
§ lRecently the Government have launched the first phase of their Look After Your Heart campaign which last year concentrated on raising public awareness of risk factors. As noble Lords will know, these are smoking, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol, which occurs most commonly as a result of a faulty diet containing too much saturated fat together with lack of exercise and stress. Tonight we are concerned only with diet, but I suggest that this is probably the basic problem, since the other risk factors operate fully only when blood cholesterol is raised beyond a certain threshold level.
§ The trouble is that the majority of men, and women past menopause, in northern or Australasian industrial countries have cholesterol levels above that critical threshold level, which is about 5.2 millimoles per litre. The average level in this country is about 6 millimoles. In countries with a mean cholesterol level below 5.2 millimoles coronary heart disease is much rarer. Japan has only one-eighth of our coronary heart disease mortality rate and a mean cholesterol level of rather less than 5 millimoles, despite having all the other risk factors in abundance: they smoke like chimneys, suffer carcinoma of the lung, have high blood pressure, perhaps due to high salt intake in the diet, have at least as much stress as we do and do not take any more exercise. However, their diet contains about half as much fat as ours and, perhaps more important, the fat that they have contains much less saturated fat and more polyunsaturated or essential fat than does ours.
§ Something that becomes clearer is the importance of polyunsaturated or essential fats in the protective role against coronary heart disease. This is one reason why it is particularly important for us to know the composition of the various fats and oils that we eat and how much of each kind there is in processed food, which in the UK—I find this surprising, but apparently it is true—amounts to as much as 75 per cent.
§ As will be familiar to many noble Lords, COMA came out with the recommendation that consumption of fat, especially saturated fat, should be reduced, the intake of sugars and salts should not be increased and fibre rich carbohydrates should be 740 increased to compensate for the lower fat intake. For people to follow these suggestions clear labelling of foods is needed so that they can know what they are eating.
Paragraph 2.6.2 of the COMA report states:
Consultations should take place … which will lead to legislation and to codes of practice to improve public knowledge of the composition of the food".
In another paragraph the report states:
the percentage by weight of fat and of saturated, polyunsaturated and trans fatty acids in butter, margarine, cooking fats and edible oils should be printed on the container or wrapping in which they are sold. Consideration should be given in addition to providing uniform and more simple labelling codes".
The COMA regulations were strongly supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, when she spoke in support of my Question three and a half years ago. She said:
This issue of labelling food with helpful and easily comprehensible information is most important. Other countries have gone further than we have. For example, reference has been made to Scandinavia where some foods have symbols like traffic lights with red for danger. I must admit that I would personally welcome something like this for, when I look at the contents of food and the packages that contain it. I often do not know how to interpret the information given".
That statement is by a qualified nurse and academic of superior ability. What hope then has the average consumer if information is not given in a clear, comprehensible and standard format?
What has been the Government's response to these suggestions from COMA? In reply to the question in this House three and a half years ago the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, stated:
Government action must centre on making available advice about the effect of diet on health and information about what is in the foods that we buy".
He said also that,
for the Government's part the United Kingdom Health Department and the Agricultural Food Department have already set up a working party with the food industry to study the feasibility and practicality of fat content labelling".
Many of us were quite pleased with that reply and hoped that we would see rapid results.
§ After quite a long delay, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in February 1986 proposed regulations for the labelling of the fat content of food which would have rendered mandatory the labelling of foods for total and saturated fat content. At that point it seems that the Government had not thought out whether the proposal would be acceptable in Brussels. It appears that legal advice was obtained some time after this which indicated that there would be considerable problems because of EC Council Directive 79/112 of 1978 on the approximation of the laws of the member states relating to labelling, presentation and advertising of foodstuffs for sale to the ultimate consumer.
The Government do not appear to have tested at that stage the provision in Article 15(2) of that food labelling directive. At this stage it is worth quoting Article 15, which in part states:
Member states may not forbid trade in foodstuffs which comply with the rules laid down in this Directive by the application of non-harmonised national provisions governing the labelling and presentation of certain food stuffs or foodstuffs in general.".
In other words, this would appear to prevent the United Kingdom going ahead with its own
programme of labelling, whether on fat or more comprehensive nutritional labelling. Paragraph 2 of the article states:
Paragraph I shall not apply to non-harmonised national provisions justified on the grounds of protection of public health.".
It gave a number of other exceptions that are not relevant tonight.
§ I am still not absolutely sure that the Government have tested out whether the paragraph could be used to justify going ahead alone with mandatory labelling in this country. Legal advice was apparently taken. However, I do not think that the matter has ever been taken to the full EC Commission or debated in the European Parliament.
§ It would seem to us that the situation in this country, which contains areas with the highest coronary heart disease mortality in the world, should justify using this provision to bring in legislation ahead of the rest of Europe. I gather that legal advice was taken by MAFF on this both here and in Brussels. It was felt for technical or legalistic reasons which are still not clear to me that this special exception could not be used to justify the UK going ahead with mandatory labelling.
I have a letter from Mr. Donald Thompson, a Minister at MAFF, that was sent to Mr. Simon Coombs, the Member of Parliament for Swindon in another place, on 14th January, which said:
Those provisions in the Treaty of Rome which in certain circumstances allow member states to act to protect public health are, to the extent that the food labelling directive harmonised law, no longer available to member states. Now it is also clear that the derogation for the protection of public health in Article 15(2) of the directive is restricted to non-harmonised provisions.".
Even in writing that is very strange language. I imagine that it sounds just like gobbledegook when listened to.
§ Common sense would seem to me to say that fat labelling regulations are not standard throughout Europe now. They do not exist in any country in Europe. To say that Article 15(2) is restricted to non-harmonised provisions would seem to me to fit our bill precisely. Even if' we are precluded for a reason that I fear still eludes me although I have read several briefs on the matter, from using this derogation for the protection of public health, there are other ways in which we could perhaps progress. I think that we should be able to look to Article 36 of the Treaty of Rome which is concerned with exceptions to Community law on trade due to public policy issues. Surely matters of public health constitute public policy.
So far I have been talking mostly about mandatory fat labelling because I think that it is the most important factor in the control of coronary heart disease. However, sugar, salt and fibre are also important, as mentioned in the COMA report. Perhaps I may quote from the policy document of the Coronary Prevention Group:
The directive certainly provides no legal basis for distinguishing, as the UK Government does, between the mandatory labelling of fat content and the voluntary labelling of other nutrients".
§ It appears to me that the Government have retreated perhaps rather too readily from their original intention to introduce mandatory labelling of fat in the face of this apparent opposition by the 742 EC. Now they propose to include fat labelling in a voluntary scheme for nutritional labelling, which to me appears unnecessarily complex. It is suggested that the main nutrient types are to be labelled in three categories of complexity with two optional additions in category three. It is only this most detailed category that includes the breakdown of fats, carbohydrates and the content of salt and fibre which will be necessary to enable people to follow the COMA recommendations.
§ The introduction of regulations, even to establish the format of the labelling, let alone to make them mandatory, is not envisaged until the EC decides on a Europe-wide labelling format. This may take years and there is absolutely no guarantee that even the agreed voluntary format which emerges will include the necessary information needed to help people to follow COMA.
§ I should like to put four specific questions. First, do the Government accept that there exists adequate evidence to establish a link between diet and the development of coronary heart disease? Do the Government accept as a matter of principle that there is a case for mandatory labelling, first, of saturated fat, and, secondly, of sugars, salt and fibre on the grounds of the protection of public health? Thirdly, are they prepared to receive and to consider further legal argument to the effect that nutritional labelling is not yet a harmonised area within the meaning of the food labelling directive, and therefore Article 15(2) of that directive provides a means of introducing mandatory and comprehensive nutritional labelling? Finally, in any event will the Government in their further discussions with the EC press for the same treatment to be afforded the labelling of sugar, salt and dietary fibre as they have been advocating for fats?
§ I venture to suggest that if Her Majesty's Government energetically pursued their case they might influence EC food labelling policy in a very beneficial way. We could set the standard and the rest of Europe could harmonise with us. If this were the case it would meet with the applause of the populations of many EC countries which also have a major problem with coronary heart disease.
§ 9.3 p.m.
§ Lord Ennals
My Lords, perhaps I may first of all thank my noble friend for raising this issue this evening and for bringing his professional expertise and knowledge for the benefit of your Lordships' House. Secondly, I should like to make a general comment upon the importance of nutritional labelling quite separate from the specific interests of the Coronary Prevention Group. I do so from my interests as chairman of the all-party parliamentary food and health forum which was meeting earlier this evening.
It is increasingly important in our view that there should be an effective requirement for food labelling. I refer not only to fats, sugars, salt and dietary fibre (which were referred to by my noble friend) but also to additives of all kinds with their E numbers; vitamins, dietary supplements and colourings. There is a growing awareness by the public (and especially by women) of the important link between food and 743 health. The COMA Report followed by the NACKNE Report; the tremendous success of Maurice Hanson's E for Additives, which became a best seller, and the growing number of articles in the women's press and in the press generally on the various aspects of nutrition, have all contributed to creating a great and dramatic growth of interest in what we eat. People want to know and they need to know. They look to the Government to ensure that there is a comprehensive requirement for the labelling of all packaged goods with a guarantee that the information is fully available to them.
Recent research suggests that there is some kind of a link between diet, behaviour and academic performance. This created tremendous interest and produced an immediate demand upon chemists and health foods shops for the sale of vitamins. Recently there have been two trials which have produced some quite impressive information suggesting a link with academic performance and also even a link between good diet and criminality.
I refer only to these because it greatly adds to the general case made by my noble friend and the Coronary Prevention Group for a requirement to label on food manufacturers and upon those who process foods. I pay tribute to the Coronary Prevention Group which has made a great contribution to knowledge and understanding in a variety of different ways. That applies in particular as regards informing Members of Parliament and informing the public. I greatly appreciate the bulletins and the publications which it makes available.
It has sought to follow the recommendations of the COMA Report. My noble friend outlines the recommendations that it made in relation to fats, sugars, salts and fibre-rich carbohydrates. It said that without clear and simple labelling of these nutrients it is almost impossible for the consumer to follow the dietary recommendations of the report particularly with regard to processed foods which constitute some 75 per cent. of the UK diet. Accordingly it is very difficult to see how the recommendations of the COMA Report can be used to justify a policy to introduce mandatory labelling solely in respect of fat content. This is why I started with the broader need for labelling.
My noble friend referred to the correspondence between Mr. Donald Thompson the Parliamentary Secretary at MAFF, and Mr. Simon Coombs who incidentally is also secretary of the all-party parliamentary food and health forum. My noble friend referred to that correspondence and I need not do so myself. It is extremely unsatisfactory that the good intentions of the Government should be frustrated by the Commission. As my noble friend has said, the Government seem to have moved very slowly. I have to ask myself whether it is just due to the attitude of the Commission, or whether the Government have seized upon the attitude of the Commission as a justification for the slow speed with which they have moved.
To follow up the exchange initiated by my noble friend, I should like to put a few questions. First, what is the basis of the opposition from the Commission? Is there some commercial pressure? 744 What reasons are given by other governments for opposing the objectives of Her Majesty's Government? Secondly, what response has there been by the food industry in the United Kingdom since MAFF published its labelling guidelines last July? Thirdly, will the Minister explain to me why the United Kingdom Government cannot proceed to a statutory requirement applicable to goods sold in the United Kingdom? Surely it is clear that the Government and the public wish it. Why should we be held back by the EC? Perhaps Britain's lead would produce a more positive response from other governments.
Perhaps I may conclude by emphasising the importance of this issue. Obviously the coronary prevention unit is concerned principally with coronary heart disease. Heart disease is the most important public health issue in Britain today. Not only is it the nation's leading killer, but the latest international comparative statistics from the World Health Organisation show that Northern Ireland and Scotland have substantially the highest coronary heart disease mortality rates in the whole world. That is a frightening state of affairs, and the Government must respond positively. We look to the Government for action—not just some time but now—in order to protect public health for which they have a responsibility.
§ 9.10 p.m.
§ Lord Hesketh
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity that the debate gives me to set out the facts on this issue. Before saying another word perhaps I may assure the noble Lord, Lord Rea, that not only did I listen to his first words concerning the Coronary Prevention Group, but I hope that I have taken its advice over the past 12 months. I have given up cigarettes; I have avoided additives; and have attempted to abandon fat. However, it is (as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Rea. will know) nonetheless an uphill struggle.
The Goverment value the work of the Coronary Prevention Group in trying to combat coronary heart disease. They have studied carefully its recent report entitled European Community; Barrier or Scapegoat? —An Analysis of the United Kingdom Government's position on Nutrition Labelling. The group calls upon the Government to explain what it calls "its present confused position" on nutritional labelling.
Before we get into the legal arguments which are the main points in the document, I should like to state clearly the current position on nutrition labelling and the background to that position. Last July, in response to increasing interest in nutrition labelling, the Government issued guidelines on that subject. The aim is to standardise the presentation of nutrition information where that is given. The food industry, commendably, had responded to consumer interest by providing that type of information, but differences of presentation made it difficult for consumers to compare products and resulted in confusion. Hence the need for our guidelines to which the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, referred, to bring some order to the supermarket shelves. Slightly revised guidelines were issued on 21st January. That revision was in answer to two particular problems which had 745 been put to us. There should no longer therefore be any harriers to widespread adoption by the food industry, and we confidently expect to see that.
The provision of nutrition labelling is voluntary. In the longer term, the Government intend that a statutory format will be prescribed for use where the nutrition information is given. Final decisions on this will not be taken until we have some experience of the uptake by the industry. Moreover, we expect the European Community to discuss proposals for nutrition labelling of food, and it is sensible to await those discussions before we firm up our position. That then is the current position on nutrition labelling generally.
The Government's policy on fat labelling has a different background. It has thus evolved as a separate issue, although of course fat is one of the main nutrients covered by the nutrition labelling guidelines. The Chief Medical Officer's Committee on the Medical Aspects of Food Policy— known colloquially as COMA—produced a report on Diet and Cardiovascular Disease. That report suggested a positive link between the consumption of fat and cardiovascular disease and recommended that the consumption of total fat and especially saturated fatty acids should be decreased. There were also specific recommendations on the labelling of fats in order to assist consumers to follow the dietary recommendations.
The Government have accepted the COMA report. In 1986, we issued proposals for regulations on fat labelling which were intended to implement the relevant COMA recommendations. The reason for the distinction between fat labelling, which we wish to make compulsory, and nutrition labelling, which is voluntary, is quite simple. COMA did not point to direct links between the consumption of any other nutrients and heart disease and made no recommendations on the labelling of other nutrients. There is no scientific or medical evidence accepted by government which would justify compulsory nutrition labelling other than for fat. There is therefore no inconsistency in the Government's approach as claimed by the CPG. The Government's proposals for compulsory fat labelling have been unavoidably delayed. Our initial view was that the COMA report provided us with the basis for introducing such regulations on public health grounds. However, the Commission of the European Community did not accept our interpretation of Community law, as the noble Lords, Lord Rea and Lord Ennals, brought to our attention this evening. It held the view that what was proposed was contrary to the provisions of food labelling directives, and moreover could constitute a barrier to trade. It accepted that the problem existed in respect of the incidence of cardiovascular disease in the United Kingdom—as again has been pointed out in your Lordships' House this evening by the noble Lords, Lord Rea and Lord Ennals—and indeed in other member states of the Community. The commission has said:We are therefore examining the situation very carefully with the aim of finding a solution which would be both compatible with Community law and would meet the legitimate health concerns about diet which exist in Europe.".746 We are continuing to discuss with the Commission a way forward within the framework of Community law. We are led to believe that its proposals for nutrition labelling will include some provision which would allow the UK to introduce compulsory fat labelling. It is hoped that the Commission's proposals for nutrition labelling will be put forward shortly.
The noble Lord, Lord Rea, argues (and I can understand why because this was also initially the Government's view on fat labelling) that the UK can act unilaterally on nutrition labelling. This he says can be justified on grounds of public health because nutrition labelling has yet to be harmonised within the meaning of Article 15(1) of the European Community food labelling directive. However, that is not correct.
There are provisions in the Treaty of Rome which allow member states to take action to protect public health. But to the extent that the food labelling directive harmonised the law, the provisions are no longer available. Compulsory fat labelling would impinge on a harmonised field. Article 3(1) of the food labelling directive gives those particulars which alone shall be compulsory on the labelling of foodstuffs. These particulars do not include nutritional information. The only exceptions to this rule are for specified foodstuffs, not for food in general. Compulsory fat labelling would of course have to apply to the generality of foods. The derogation to act unilaterally for the protection of public health in Article 15(2) of the directive is restricted to non-harmonised provisions. This then is the clear, although complex, legal position.
Those are the reasons why we cannot simply make UK regulations for fat labelling. European Community law is the delaying factor; but I should strongly dispute that the Community is either a barrier or a scapegoat. The Government have on many occasions repeated their commitment to compulsory fat labelling. The European Commission, and indeed some other member states, is sympathetic to our aims. I am therefore hopeful that progress will be made in the discussions with the Commission. This is taking time, but it is important that any proposals are acceptable to all member states. They will wish to be reasssured that any such fat regulations in the United Kingdom will not constitute an unjustified barrier to trade in foodstuffs. If we were to go ahead unilaterally, notwithstanding all that advice, it is extremely likely that we would be taken before the European Court of Justice and because of the supremacy of the directive over UK regulations, those regulations could well be unenforceable.
I should like to base my summing up on the four conclusions of the CPG's report. The first conclusion says:The Government has yet to provide a coherent explanation of why it is unable to introduce mandatory labelling of foods for their content of saturated fat, sugar, salt and fibre"—as the noble Lord, Lord Rea, brought to our attention—Its interpretation of Community legislation is flawed and its references to the COMA report are selective".I hope that I have been able to give a coherent explanation as to why the Government do not intend 747 to introduce compulsory labelling for nutrients other than fat. Our reading of the COMA report is not selective; it is accurate, and the recommendations other than for fat do not justify compulsion.
Conclusions 2 and 3 concern the use of public health grounds for the introduction of both fat and nutritional labelling. I have explained the legal reasons why we cannot bring in regulations in this area using either the public health grounds in the food labelling directive or indeed in the Treaty of Rome. It is a harmonised field and as such member states cannot act unilaterally. To act unilaterally in these circumstances and run the risk of losing in the European Court would be imprudent and unproductive.
748 Finally, I agree with the CPG on the need for clear nutrition labelling which it says requires urgent, decisive action. The Government have acted decisively with the introduction of their voluntary guidelines for nutritional labelling. The food industry has responded positively. We are confident that the guidelines will be adopted by the majority of manufacturers and retailers, who will give in standard format the maximum amount of nutrition information within their resources. This will be of great benefit to consumers, particularly those wishing to monitor or make changes in their overall diet, whether this is for healthier eating generally or more specific reasons such as the avoidance of heart disease.
§ House adjourned at twenty minutes past nine o'clock.