§ Mr. Gregory
To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what action he is taking about the increasing use of the word natural and other similar terms in food labelling and advertising; and if he will make a statememt.
§ Mr. Donald Thompson
I am certainly aware of the increasing use of the word "natural" and words and phrases which have a similar effect in food labelling and advertising and I have been concerned that some of these may be misleading the consumer. Indeed, that is why last year I commissioned the Local Authorities Co-ordinating Body on Trading Standards (LACOTS) to carry out a survey for me of the use of "natural" on food labels and in advertising so that a full assessment could be made. I am arranging for this most useful report, which clearly shows the extent of the problem to be published. The report was subsequently considered by the Food Advisory Committee (FAC) which looked into this issue in detail and I have now received the committee's advice.
The FAC has concluded that there is a clear, and increasing, risk of consumers being misled by current practices in labelling and advertising and that, despite the protection in section 6 of the Food Act 1984 against misleading descriptions, there is a need to bring some additional control and rationality into the present situation. They considered, however, that this was not a area of labelling which readily lent itself to the precise definitions required by law, but that it was nevertheless possible to draw up some broad guidelines on the appropriate (and inappropriate) use of "natural" claims. Their view was that the food industry, with the encouragement of the enforcement authorities and consumers, might be willing to follow such guidelines on a voluntary basis and therefore put their own house in order. I am arranging for this also to be published.
I am grateful to LACOTS for its research and to the FAC for the work it has done. The guidelines suggested by the FAC seem to me to be well thought out and therefore suitable as a basis from which the answers to problems in this area might be developed. I am therefore sending the FAC advice to representative organisations of the interests concerned to see if, in the light of it, a voluntary measure of control might be achieved.
My colleagues in the Health and Agriculture Departments share my views on this subject and consultations with the interested organisations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will also be undertaken.
It should, of course, be remembered that section 1 of the Food Act 1984 ensures that nothing should be done to food which might render it injurious to health.
Copies of the report of the LACOTS survey and of the FAC advice have been placed in the Library of the House.