THE Government must act to address deficiencies in the provision of food information to consumers by taking a more co-ordinated ?cross-government' approach, headed up by a single department, according to a report by the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
Responsibility for food policy is currently divided between at least six different Government departments and agencies.
The committee commends the Food Standards Agency on the work it has done to providing advice to consumers about food safety issues, but calls for a speedy Government investigation into the events which allowed the illegal dye Sudan 1 to make its way into the UK food chain.
A sub-committee chaired by Labour/Co-op MP Mark Lazarowicz compiled the report and is particularly concerned that the Government should establish the length of time for which the adulteration of chilli powder is likely to have gone undetected and why UK authorities did not detect this adulteration in a product used so extensively in UK food processing.
The MPs call for the mandatory provision of extensive nutrition information on all labelling of prepacked foods, and urged the Government to prioritise the necessary legislative change during the UK's forthcoming presidency of the EU.
The committee ? whose members also included Co-op MPs David Drew, David Taylor and David Lepper ? wants to see provision of guideline daily amounts for energy and individual nutrients on labels.
The committee calls on the Government to take speedy action to introduce a UK-wide system of front-of-label nutrition ?signposting', which sets out a food's health credentials at a glance.
The MPs express disappointment that the major supermarkets seem to have made little effort to encourage suppliers to improve nutrition labelling and signposting, though they have made good progress with their own-brand labels.
Since WTO rules prevent legislation for labelling on ethical concerns about food production, the food industry should demonstrate its own willingness to provide this information. The committee says that failure to do so could be interpreted by consumers as a failure to engage with the ethical implications of the industry's activities.
The committee calls on the Government to ensure the legitimacy of the standard-assurance logos on the origins and contents of food by setting up a central register of food assurance schemes and identify a "gaping hole" in the compulsory provision of information to consumers about non-prepacked foods in realtion to food sold in the catering or eating out sectors, as well as food such as that sold loose from a supermarket's delicatessen counter, loose fruit, vegetables and baked goods.
The eating-out sector must take responsibility for developing a system to highlight healthy choices to consumers and the Government should work with the sector to develop a ?green light only' nutrition signposting system.
Summing up, the MPs call for more clarity and consistency in food information requirements and believe that Defra should take the lead on food information policy. They say it should also take on the Public Service Agreement (PSA) target of cutting rising obesity as a joint responsibility.
Local authorities must also have sufficient resources to prosecute food manufacturers and retailers when they breach food-labelling laws.
The committee emphasises that any change in food labelling must go hand-in-hand with better education about food, and that little will be achieved without corresponding changes in industry practice regarding food pricing, portion sizes and product placement.
Said Mr Lazarowicz: "Though there is now considerable interest about how we can promote a healthy diet, consumers will have difficulty in making healthy choices if they don't have adequate information about the food they buy.
"There have been some steps taken by the food industry to improve its record, but in far too many cases information is not made available to consumers in a form which is any use. We need a comprehensive scheme of food labelling, not token gestures by the industry.
"I welcome the lead the Co-op has taken in promoting clear and honest labelling and look forward to more Co-op initiatives that put the concerns of consumers at the heart of labelling."
The full report is available at: www.parliament.uk/efracom