Liberal Democrats promise to help suppliers and tighten labelling rules

- Last updated on GMT

With the UK general election less than a month away and food as hot
a topic as it ever has been, Anthony Fletcher spoke to
Liberal Democrat shadow agriculture secretary Andrew George about
his party's plans and promises for the food production sector.

While an outright victory in the polls on 5 May remains an unlikely outcome, a hung parliament could see the party forming a coalition government, providing them with direct influence on government food production policy. Most significantly, issues such as obesity and the Sudan 1 food scare have made food and food production a major political issue.

Liberal Democrats are instinctively distrustful of over-regulation, and George argues that some EU rules have created unnecessary burdens and costs on businesses. He says that the Liberal Democrats would take a close look at the animal by-products regulation and the need for a national fallen stock collection scheme.

But one piece of legislation the party does support is the Children's Food Bill, which would result in the implementation of a range of measures designed to improve children's diets and future health. Many Liberal Democrat MPs, including health spokesman Paul Burstow MP, have signed an EDM (Early Day Motion, which indicates support) on the issue.

"We have set out a package of measures to tackle obesity, including a compulsory traffic light labelling system for packaged foods, nutritional standards for school meals, and stronger links between schools and sports clubs to encourage people to continue exercising in school and when they leave school,"​ George told "Education about healthy eating and cooking in schools would be coupled with opportunities for reciprocal farm and school visits."

The issue of compulsory traffic light labelling that George mentions is a controversial one. Many in the food industry believe that the system, which would provide nutritional information on packaged foods using a green, yellow and red coding system, is too simplistic, while consumer groups argue that consumers are confused by current labelling standards.

"The industry should be more proactive in providing consumers with more information about nutritional content of food and work to reduce levels of fat, sugar and salt in food,"​ said George. "Fundamentally we believe in informed choice, not banning things."

In addition, the Liberal Democrats would require the FSA and Ofcom to develop a policy on restricting advertising of unhealthy foods during children's television programmes, a move that has considerable support from pressure groups such as Sustain but has been met with scepticism from many in the food industry. But with obesity increasingly taking up column inches in newspapers and becoming a TV issue with celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's fight with the government over school dinners, the momentum to change advertising rules might well be with the Liberal Democrats.

George says that a Liberal Democrat government would also seek an early review of the role of welfare, safety and meat hygiene inspection arrangements and standards in abattoirs.

"The Government is not on top of the situation, despite responsibility for enforcement switching to Customs and Excise,"​ he told "12,000 tonnes of illegal meat come into the country each year. Whilst the Government plans heavy biosecurity demands on farmers they take a very lax attitude to their own duties."

George claims that a recent National Audit Office report shows that there is a continuing need for more prosecutions and we support on-the-spot fines. He says that this focus must be intelligence-based - prevention is far better than cure in this case.

One notable thing about the Liberal Democrats' stance is an overarching belief that the move towards more responsible and stringently controlled food production is inevitable, and that this could even be of benefit to the sector if properly managed.

"The general public in the UK are showing more concern about food miles,"​ said George. "We would encourage local sourcing to reduce the negative environmental impact of food being transported many miles.

"Greater transparency in the food chain, through clearer labelling on origins and quality, will help people to make a more informed choice and increase trust in the UK food industry."

In addition, he points to the UK industry's strong track record on animal welfare, which he says should be viewed as a competitive advantage. "We will continue to encourage animal welfare-friendly practices but on a EU-wide basis, so as to avoid unnecessary gold plating which puts UK farmers and food manufacturers at a disadvantage,"​ he said.

Indeed, at a time when supermarkets are reporting record profits, George argues that farmers and farm workers deserve a fair share of the retail price.

"The voluntary Code of Practice, which was supposed to govern the relationship between suppliers and the 'big four', has not been worth the paper on which it is written,"​ he told said. "Whilst I accept that it is rational business behaviour to maximise the use of one's market muscle; in respect of this relationship 'use' has now become 'abuse'."

George believes that suppliers are too afraid to use the Code to report the unfair practices of supermarkets. He claims that the code does not give them anonymity, and expects them to go to the supermarket with any grievance.

"But the recent audit of the Code by the Office of Fair Trading has demonstrated once again that it is a toothless tiger and is itself in need of reform,"​ he said.

The Liberal Democrats would introduce a new stronger code; would grant suppliers anonymity; and create a Food Trade Inspector operating within the OFT. The FTI would be proactive in seeking out unfair practices, rather than waiting for suppliers to come forward.

"Food manufacturers will benefit from a healthy agricultural sector to provide high quality ingredients,"​ he said. "Fresh produce from UK suppliers will always create a better product than the foreign processed equivalent that has travelled many miles to reach our shores. So our policies on the Code of Practice, sustainable agriculture and so on will have a knock on effect on food manufacturers."

Related topics: Processing & Packaging

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