European Standing Committee A


26th October 1994




European Standing Committee A


Wednesday 26 October 1994


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1 European Standing Committee A Wednesday 26 October 1994


Foodstuffs: Particular Nutritional Uses

10.30 am

The Chairman: Some hon. Members may have forgotten how these Committees are structured. I am about to call the Minister. I am delighted to welcome her to her first European Standing Committee to discuss a European document.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Angela Browning): I thank you, Mr. Winterton, for that warm welcome. I am delighted to participate in this debate. Directive 89/398/EEC on foodstuffs intended for particular nutritional uses, commonly referred to as the PARNUTs directive, sets out requirements for the control of foods for particular nutritional purposes. Those include a requirement for the nature and composition of the food to be such that it is appropriate for the particular nutritional use intended, certain labelling requirements which make clear the special nutritional elements, and a notification system for newly marketed PARNUTs foods other than those covered by specific subordinate directives. The directive currently provides, in annex I, for more specific directives for nine categories of food where it has been considered that more detailed measures are necessary to afford proper protection. So far only one specific directive has been adopted, covering two of the nine categories listed in the framework directive—infant formulae and follow-on formulae—and that is also subject to a proposal for amendment. Following agreement at the Edinburgh summit that the need for planned legislation should be reviewed, the Commission has reconsidered the need for specific subsidiary directives. It has proposed that the Community should retain the directive on infant formulae and follow-on formulae and introduce specific directives for weaning foods—that is baby foods—foods for weight control—that is, slimming foods—and foods for medical purposes. However, it considers separate directives on low-sodium foods, foods for diabetics, gluten-free foods and food for sportsmen and women to be unnecessary. Thus the number of specific categories in annex I would be reduced from nine to five. We wrote to 277 interests and invited them to comment on the Commission's proposal. We received 10 replies and in general the proposal received support. The Food Advisory Committee has also looked at this proposal and has recommended that it is acceptable and indeed could go further. The FAC sees no need for compositional controls on slimming foods or medical foods. However, it also pressed for there to be progress on EC rules on claims. In considering the case for any additional directives our approach has been to ask whether it is really necessary to lay down any rules regulating the composition of these foods. Our conclusion is that the Commission could have 2 gone further and also deleted slimming and medical foods from the annex. However, we acknowledge that there may be a case for what the Commission proposes. Infant formulae and follow-on formulae may serve as the sole or main source of nourishment for infants at a time when diet is extremely important for their development and growth. We need to be sure that they provide the right mix of essential nutrients. While it is true that baby foods may not be the only foods eaten by young children, there is a strong feeling that their composition should also be subject to certain standards, so that parents can be confident about the products available on the market. Slimming foods are whole meal or diet replacements and they may form the sole source of nourishment over a period of days or weeks. The argument for specific measures for these foods is not as strong as it is for infant formulae and baby foods, but we must bear in mind that we have our own controls on slimming foods in the food labelling regulations. Foods for special medical purposes are used for dietary management of specific metabolic or physiological conditions. Those are specially formulated products and should be used under medical supervision. Because of their special nature and the potential health risks associated with their consumption, the Commission proposes specific labelling provisions. We believe that at least some of those foods—those which contain recognised medicines—might be classed as medicines and controlled by the requirements of the Medicines Act 1971. It is proposed to delete the provision for specific directives on low-sodium foods, gluten-free foods, foods for diabetics and foods for sportsmen and women on the grounds that they are unnecessary. We agree with that view. In the case of foods for diabetics, there is considerable agreement among health professionals that such a category has no scientific justification and should not be promoted or acknoweldged in legislation. The advice is that diabetics should be able to eat ordinary foods under professional guidance. The explanatory note attached to the Commission's proposal anticipates that those four categories of food will continue to be subject to the general rules of the PARNUTs directive, which I outlined at the beginning of my statement. For the time being, we believe that to be right, but during the negotiations on this amendment we will press the Commission to produce its claims proposal, so that claims relating to low-sodium and gluten-free foods can be soundly based.

The Chairman: We now have 54 minutes, in which to put questions to the Minister, who has made her opening statement. Any hon. Member who rises to ask a question may ask more than one question, but I hope that the questioning will be brief.

Mr. Martyn Jones: I shall be brief, but first I sincerely welcome the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning) as she takes up her position on the Front Bench. I hope that she enjoys her next 18 months or two years in that position—until the next general election. Has the Minister considered what scope there is within the framework directive or, indeed, subsidiarity procedures for national legislation regarding PARNUTs? That is incidentally, an odd acronym for particular nutritional requirements of foods. The Government should take on board the concerns expressed to the Select Committee on European Legislation by the British Diabetic Association 3 and the Coeliac Society about problems with current dietary foods. Particular problems occur relating to foods for diabetics, which may well be sucrose free, but often contain substances that are not carbohydrate free, and therefore add to the nutritional burden on diabetics. They do not have a place within the guidelines laid down by the British Diabetic Association on nutrition for diabetics. The Coeliac Society believes that there is a problem concerning gluten-free products, which, in some cases may not be gluten free. No guidelines exist to govern such claims. Can the Minister address those problems?

Mrs. Browning: On diabetics, the United Kingdom food labelling regulations used to include compositional requirements for diabetic foods. In line with recent medical advice, however, that diabetics should eat ordinary food, and follow a careful diet under medical supervision, we considered it inappropriate to continue to recognise special foods in legislation. Therefore, when we amended the food labelling regulations earlier this year, we deleted that provision. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the food must fulfil any claim made about it, which is part of the general rule of PARNUTs. Food must be marked or labelled with an indication of the particular aspects of its composition or manufacturing process which gives it its particular nutritional characteristics. On the important matter of gluten-free products, I should advise the hon. Gentleman when the PARNUTs directive was put out to consultation, the Coeliac Society did not respond with any written representations. The hon. Gentleman is quite right about the claims made about gluten-free products. We should pressure the Commission to introduce guidelines on such claims, because, currently, gluten-free products can contain up to 0.15 per cent, of gluten. We want to ensure that, under the claims directive, the EC pursues the problem with respect to gluten.

Mrs. Dunwoody: What definition of low-sodium foods do the Government accept? Are they convinced that the Commission will not reintroduce that category under some other guise? How will the removal from the annex of the categories relating to low-sodium and gluten-free foods affect existing products on the shelves?

Mrs. Browning: I can assure the hon. Lady that, as I have explained to the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones), the PARNUTs directive will still apply both to sodium-free or sodium-reduced products and to gluten-free products. It has not been considered necessary to issue a specific directive on sodium-free products—opposed to the other five categories at the beginning of the list—becasue it was felt that existing legislation would not be enhanced by such a specific directive. Nevertheless, the rules of the PARNUTs directive will still apply to those categories.

Mrs. Dunwoody: The Minister will be aware that existing products and the complications of different definitions have not been dealt with. So I ask the Minister again, what definition of low-sodium foods was used by the Government?

Mrs. Browning: There is no definition that I can give the hon. Lady. Whatever claims are made, they must not be misleading. All claims would fall within the remit of local 4 authority trading standards inspectors, who would ensure that nothing said about a product was misleading to the purchaser.

Mrs. Dunwoody: In that case, may I ask whether there is a structured programme for the removal from the shelves of foods that may—inadvertently—be incorrectly labelled?

Mrs. Browning: I can assure the hon. Lady that examples of products or brands falling within that category under existing legislation would be referred for further investigation. If the hon. Lady has any information about incorrect labelling I would be pleased to follow it up.

The Chairman: As there are no further questions, I call the Minister to move, and if necessary, to speak to the motion.

Motion made, on Question proposed, That the Committee takes note of European Community Document No. 5934/94, and the Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 22nd June 1994, relating to foodstuffs intended for particular nutritional purposes; and agrees with the Government's intention to support this proposal.—[Mrs. Browning.]

10.43 am

Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South-West): I am pleased that the Minister has said that pressure will be placed on the Commission about gluten-free claims which is so important. I am surprised that the Coeliac Society did not reply to the consultation, but the Minister is aware of its view. It is important to note that the society and the BDA want gluten-free products deleted from annexe 1. There remains, however, considerable scope for local legislation or for a Government overview of the matter. The problems identified by the BDA and the Coeliac Society can be tackled by the Government through legislation. A question mark still hangs over the inflated claims made for body-building and other foods. The term is appropriate, as the profits made are also inflated. That matter merits investigation but, those provisos aside, I am happy to support the directive.

10.45 am

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): I cannot say that I am as sanguine as the rest of the Committee appears to be about the measure. As usual, the Commission seems to have got into extraordinary and unnecessary difficulties. Existing rules covering the content and labelling of foods are best left to countries' national Assemblies. They understand the problems and, through labelling are able to make them clear for purchasers. I, too, am surprised that the Minister received no evidence from the Coeliac Society, as the definition of gluten-free foods is very important. A misapprehension of what a food contains can cause real difficulty. I have no special worry about slimming foods: people who seriously believe that eating and drinking some magic formula will cause them to lose large amounts of weight have such deep-seated psychological problems that it does not matter what they buy. I should be delighted if a formula existed that allowed me to eat and drink what I liked while remaining eight stone, but I have not found it after 30 years of fairly enengetic searching. I am sure that that is not your experience, Mr. Winterton, and that you have been able to perform that magic trick. 5 Straight lines of communication must be laid down for the Commission. Amorphous, disorientated and cheerfully overworked committees waste vast amounts of time trying to agree on pointless definitions, but their efforts do not protect the consumer in this country nor improve the lot of food purchasers. Certain foods have been abandoned from the annex, but there is no reason to believe that the Commission will not return to the matter in the future. It has a nasty habit, when it does not get its way, of accepting a temporary adjournment and then bringing the matter back again. Gluten-free and low-sodium foods are not in the same category as slimming foods, for example, over which purchasers have control of what they buy. Information about gluten-free and low-sodium foods materially affects the consumer. I am happy that the Committee has agreed with the general tone of the directive, that it hopes that certain categories of food will be abandoned from the annex and that that will be the end of the matter. I want the House of Commons, however, to continue to keep a close eye on the way in which the matter evolves, not least because considerable differences exist between the continental and United Kingdom definitions of foods. I am not talking about ordinary food and drink but about the medicinal and herbal contents of food. Artificial attempts to harmonise those definitions, without clear and specific scientific bases, will get us into an extraordinarily difficult and, indeed, indefensible situation. I therefore give the directive a qualified acceptance while retaining some considerable doubts. I should be happy to hear from the Minister that she is convinced that this is the last that we shall hear of those categories within the remit of the Commission. If that is not the case, hon. Members must ask the Minister to come back in six months and give us a clear report of what is happening. I take a certain amount of credit for the expertise that the Minister will undoubtedly offer to her post. I am sure that the occasion on which she opposed me at a general election was a great training period for her and that I can, therefore, take some credit for the result.

The Chairman: I take it that no other hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate. I shall not urge the Minister necessarily, to respond to the final remarks of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody).

10.51 am

Mrs. Browning: I should like to thank the hon. Member for Crewe and Natwich for her kind and humorous remarks; I think that she is authorised to offer national vocational qualifications in politics and I appreciate the training ground that she gave me. 6 Perhaps I may reassure the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West, who have both expressed concern about gluten-free foods. They should be aware that the Commission proposes that claims regarding gluten-free should remain with the PARNUTs framework directive. We believe that we should, however, pursue that subject, particularly in terms of the claims that we have discussed, and I assure both hon. Members that it will be pursued. It is also appropriate for me to mention that United Kingdom legislation is not permitted when products are removed from annex I because that could interfere with free circulation within the European Community. In conclusion, the PARNUTs directive provides a framework for the control of foods that are produced to meet the particular needs of certain sectors of the Community. It should ensure that the foodstuffs meet the purpose for which they were intended and that they will be properly labelled and notified to the appropriate authorities. The directive originally anticipated more detailed controls for nine categories but in the spirit of deregulation, the Commission reviewed that need and concluded that of those, only five are really necessary. We believe that there is a definite need for three of those categories; infant formulae, follow-on formula and baby foods. We also recognise, however, the arguments for specific measures for the other two categories, medical foods and slimming foods, and we propose to support the Commission's proposal.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, 9 That the Committee takes note of European Community Document No. 5934/94, and the Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 22nd June 1994, relating to foodstuffs intended for particular nutritional purposes; and agrees with the Government's intention to support this proposal.

Committee rose at eight minutes to Eleven o'clock.



Winterton, Mr. Nicholas (Chairman)

Barnes, Mr.

Dunwoody, Mrs.

Evans, Mr. Nigel

Gillan, Mrs.

Harris, Mr.

Lidington, Mr.

Nicholson, Miss

O'Hara, Mr.

Sykes, Mr.

Taylor, Mr. John D.


BROWNING, Mrs. Angela (Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

Jones, Mr. Martyn (Clwyd, South-West)