Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Rebuilding Consumer Trust in Food

Food labelling is back in the headlines as EU ministers met this week to discuss the deepening horse meat crisis as it spreads across Europe. As recent events have shown, regulations regarding food labelling in the UK are lax and frequently serve to mislead the consumer.

The public have a right to expect that the food they buy reflects what it says on the label. At present, the likelihood seems to be that the presence of horse meat in the food chain may well be the result of deliberate criminal fraud, but loopholes in the regulatory regime have long meant that labelling simply doesn't help consumers to make a fully informed choice about the products that they buy.

Consumers increasingly expect a wide range of information about the foods on offer to them, whether it is the system under which eggs are laid, the variety of strawberry, or the country of origin of meat in processed products, such as pork pies. Some may want to support farmers from particular countries, or avoid goods produced in others; knowing where a food is from indicates the food miles that it entailed; different countries have different standards on animal welfare and shoppers may wish to avoid meat reared in countries whose standards they find uncomfortable. Under the present rules however, shoppers cannot always obtain accurate information about the origin of meat and fish ingredients.

Clear country of origin labelling is an issue the WI has been lobbying on in Europe since 2010. The last round of negotiations on this saw MEPs agree to adopt regulations to include the origin of fresh meat on their labels, yet for other produce, UK consumers have been left to rely on the goodwill of retailers signing up to a voluntary scheme amid concern mandatory origin labelling is too complex and too expensive.

While recent events have demonstrated the complexity of the food chain very clearly, research shows that consumers want country of origin labelling that reflects their understanding of food. With meat products they want to know where the animal was reared, rather than where the final product was packed and produced. Surveys carried out by the WI showed that 95% of members believed country of origin labelling to be an honest representation of where the ingredients were sourced, and that 93% agreed that a product should be labelled as a national product only if the key ingredients were sourced there.

Recent events have understandably left consumers nervous about the contents of the food they buy. While the government have been reluctant to implement a mandatory approach to country of origin labelling to date, a change in the regulatory system now seems inevitable, and when it comes, it should abolish the loopholes and let consumers make an informed choice about what ends up on their plate. Rebuilding consumer trust in our food system will be a major challenge for government, retailers and manufacturers. Clear country of origin labelling is a good place to start.

This blog post was originally uploaded here on The Huffington Post on 25 February 2013

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Country of origin labelling

I always knew that the WI was cool and never more so than now, with the ongoing furor surrounding meat.  The WI's mandate on country of origin labelling – nicknamed COOL –was voted for at the 2010 NFWI AGM, and has resulted in talks with the legislators in Europe with partial success.  However, we have always remained firm that the voluntary approach to country of origin labelling does not go far enough.  It flies in the face of consumer expectation that a product can be labelled as coming from the country in which the last significant change took place.  The essential messages that came from all of our discussions in Europe was that it was such a complicated process that to make country of origin labelling mandatory would doubtless mean much more administration on everyone's part, but we would all then know where all of any given product came from.  It is interesting that in much of the news coverage of this ongoing issue, we still hear very little from the consumer.

I have no doubt that the topic of where our food comes from will be part of the next Great WI Food Debate to be held on Wednesday in conjunction with the Institute for Public Policy Research.  Food waste is also high on the agenda when we discuss once again how the world will be fed by 2050.  This is the third NFWI-led debate on food security, the first was with Secretary of State for the Environment Owen Paterson in York, and the second took place in Cardiff with members of the Welsh Assembly.  Following tomorrow’s debate, talk to WI members in your area about plans locally.

I reiterate what the Norfolk Federation Chairman said in her piece in the Eastern Daily Press when she said that the WI is known for food.  This will be proved once again when NFWI Vice Chair Anne Harrison brings her expertise on food to new TV show Food Glorious Food, that celebrates recipe ingenuity, flavour, presentation and sheer cooking talent; adjectives that apply both to Anne and to the WI.

A complete departure from food, or at least eating, but how do you make a cup of tea?  Can you write down the steps you take to complete this task?  The simple act of making a up of tea is something that thousands of us do every day but for some, when the memory is not like it was, even the simplest of tasks can become too difficult.  Last week, I met with the Prime Minister in No 10 Downing Street with with representatives from the Fire Service, the Police, the RSA, and two Alzheimer Ambassadors, and we were given exactly this this exercise.  We all have slightly different ways of making tea – do we use a tea pot, or just a cup or a mug?  Do we fill the kettle with water before we get the cup from the board?  Where is the kettle and where is the cupboard?   All of these questions are relevant to someone who is suffering with dementia.   To gain an insight into their situation, we went through this process along with another one – following swiftly spoken instruction to make an origami swan, which proved too difficult for any of us.  Speaking slowly made all the difference, to us and to the swan. 

These are just a couple of exercises that help to build up empathy and eventually some understanding of the cruel disease that strikes thousands of people each year, and as a Dementia Friend you can learn such insights and pass them on to your community or social group all in the interest of building up Dementia Friendly Communities.  The Alzheimer website has all the details of how you too can become a Dementia Friend.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Green fingers

Pretty in pink is how one newspaper headline described HM The Queen last week when she attended her annual WI meeting.  I would say her outfit was more cerise than pink; but it was also definitely pink when she visited Sandringham WI in her capacity as President in January 2012.  I too had the privilege of attending then, and I expect that this year, she will have spoken to her fellow members about her annus mirabilis; her glorious jubilee.   I am so proud that our Queen is a WI member, along with her two daughters-in-law.

The WI is the place to be for so many reasons, and there are currently up to 1,000 women joining every week. Whether they’re looking for new friends, new skills, or new interests, the WI can provide them all, as well as a chance to engage in the big issues of the day.  One of those issues is the many facets of providing enough food across the world by 2050, when it is estimated there will be two billion more o feed.  This has to be thought about now and such elements addressed as farming methods, food waste, genetically modified crops, water supply, sustainability, home-grown crops, pricing and changed climatic conditions.  There are, no doubt, many other factors to consider too, but these and more will be raised across England and Wales with the WI Great Food Debates to be hosted throughout 2013.

Growing food in schools is also of great importance, so that children can learn from an early age the whys and wherefores of planting seeds and eating the vegetable or fruit it produces, which is crucial.  Why, even the First Lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama, has children digging and planting at the White House.  Imperative and necessary, but also very enjoyable.  Many of you, like me, will have such happy memories of holding one end of the line while my grandpa or father walked across the soil to push the iron holder into the ground to enable the digging of a straight trench, in which to plant potatoes, or following after them dropping seeds into the holes they made with the dibber.  Or emerging from the greenhouse where the tomato plants leave a green residue on the hands having touched them when watering.  Memories and skills that stand me in good stead now, and our children deserve the same.

Gardening, or at least what action to take with each tool or how to plant a seed, can be something a person suffering from dementia may forget completely.  Today I have attended the PM's Dementia Friendly Communities Champion Group where the participants were taken through a Dementia Friends workshop, which was a most moving and instructive half hour that enabled one to catch a glimpse of life for the dementia sufferer.  The Alzheimer Society website has all the information you need to sign up to be a Dementia Friend.  Be one of the million to have signed up by 2015 to gain some understanding of this debilitating and growing disease; then in true WI fashion, pass on your knowledge, cascade it to groups who can then form part of a Dementia Friendly Community.