Nick Herbert is Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
I don’t usually go to the pub at 10am in the morning, but Monday was an exception. We were gathered at an event for the Honest Food campaign at the Coach and Horses, a terrific gastropub in Clerkenwell, London.
While guests sampled a delicious brunch from the pub’s kitchen, as well as oysters from Essex, mutton from Wales, apple juice from Kent and cheese from Worcestershire – all organised by the Slow Food movement – there was a serious purpose to the meeting.
I was able to announce 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, which I launched earlier this year in an attempt to end the misleading labelling of meat and to empower consumers to make informed choices about the food they buy.
The simple premise is that people have a right to know where their food comes from, and that the current system, which allows a pork pie made in this country from foreign pork to be labelled as British, 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 our own. I believe that 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 if they want to because of inadequate labelling.
The Honest Food campaign is supported by animal welfare and farming organisations alike. We have signed up thousands of supporters and we know from surveys that the public strongly support our aims. The Government have admitted that there’s a problem, but they’ve been feeble in response. While we made it clear that 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 am delighted that, following a series of meetings which I and my team have had with the major supermarkets, 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 currently reviewing its labelling to ensure their customers have accurate information about where their products are made and come from.
Better labelling will benefit consumers and our producers alike. At the start of British Food Fortnight, Conservatives are demonstrating our determination to promote sustainable food production and a successful agricultural industry. The Honest Food campaign is succeeding where the Government has failed.