British food

'Let customers make an honest choice over British food' by Nick Herbert, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am delighted the Yorkshire Post is maintaining the pressure for clearer food labelling. The present system is undermining our farmers and letting down the public. A label might claim that a product is British but the reality is that the meat might have been imported and produced to inferior standards than our own.

The dedicated shopping detective might attempt to track down the country of origin by reading the packaging closely or ringing the supplier. It may be that a Cumberland sausage comes from a British farm after all, but how many of us have the time or perseverance to find out? And even then it can be impossible to get a straight answer.

The best friend to the British farmer is the well-informed consumer. To help our producers compete in an increasingly globalised world, we need to harness and develop the growing interest in how food is produced and where it comes from. But labelling rules can prevent this happening by forcing our farmers to share the British label with overseas competitors.

Earlier this year, I launched the Honest Food campaign in an attempt to end misleading labelling and to empower consumers to make informed choices about the food they buy. I was able to announce recently that Tesco has decided to support the Honest Food campaign and change some 1,000 of its food labels. This is a hugely significant step forward for the campaign.

The simple premise is that people have a right to know where their food comes from and that the system, which allows a pork pie made in this country to be labelled British when it is made from foreign meat, is wrong. It is also damaging.

Misleading labelling has undermined the improvements in farm animal welfare which we have made in this country, disadvantaging our farmers as well as deceiving consumers.

I would not want to see restraints on free trade even if they were legal - after all, Britain has important food export markets of its own.

I believe the consumer should be king, free to choose food from this country or any other. But real choice requires real information. As Jamie Oliver and others have demonstrated so effectively, consumers can find it difficult to back British producers because of inadequate labelling.

We are supported by animal welfare and farming organisations alike. The Government has admitted there's a problem but has been feeble in response. While we made it clear we would legislate to enforce honest labelling if necessary, the Government dithered. They promised a voluntary agreement with the supermarkets, but nothing happened.

Of course, as Conservatives, we would prefer the retailers to accept their social responsibility to label food honestly, rather than Parliament having to pass new laws. So I'm delighted that we have made real progress towards a voluntary agreement.

Both Tesco - the UK's largest retailer - and Morrisons have now committed to introducing clear statements on all products with a 10 per cent meat content or higher, and the replacement of the sole term "produced in the UK" when a product is manufactured in the UK but contains non-British meat.

Sainsbury's, M&S and Waitrose are also backing the campaign, and Asda is reviewing its labelling. We now need all retailers and food manufacturers to follow suit - and we'll be pressing them to do so.

Better labelling will benefit consumers and our producers alike, but we want to go further. Every year, the public sector spends more than £2bn on food. Yet not a single rasher of bacon served to our Armed Forces is British. The Treasury buys barely half of its food from Britain. Downing Street doesn't even know how much of its food comes from this country.

Labour's failure to back local produce is shameful. Under a Conservative government, all Whitehall departments will be required to procure food that meets British standards of production.

We don't want to stop there. We want to see hospitals, schools and local authorities buying food sustainably. All the evidence is that local food need not cost more - in fact, it often leads to savings.

We want to take action because we care about local food and we care about the countryside.

Michelle Taylor