Labelling theory

Brookeclive4x3.jpgLord Clive Brooke is a backbench Labour Peer in the House of Lords

How many calories are you consuming when you drink?

That’s the question which I will put on the floor of the Lords’ this evening, and with the drinks industry firmly in mind. Why? Because Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, in his concern to reduce obesity, has said people should try to reduce their daily intake of calories by 10%.

If we did this, it would in turn have a big impact on reducing the growth of diabetes, heart diseases and liver problems. The NHS would make massive savings and people would be far healthier; it’s a win-win situation, as Mr Lansley rightly claims.

Existing food labelling, whilst far from ideal, endeavours to help people know what they are consuming. But although most soft drinks are labelled in this way, alcohol is not. It is exempted. So those cans of lager and the glasses of wine can pile on the pounds unbeknown to you.

Last year, attempts were made at European Commission level to change all of this. It is to be regretted however, that the regulation that was passed calls only for voluntary labelling, and only of energy content. Mandatory nutritional labelling for alcoholic beverages was blocked by a coalition of MEPs.

Instead, the issue was put on the back burner until 2014, when it may be reviewed again.  But don’t hold your breath about changes coming at that point. Getting more than 20 countries to agree on a way forward will not be easy.

Ministers in the Coalition government state that any unilateral action by the UK would have to meet with European approval. So Europe is prayed in aid to excuse the government’s inaction. But given this country’s poor record on alcohol abuse, there is perhaps an argument for us to act unilaterally, in advance of the 2014 review.

With sclerotic progress at EU level, what in the meantime is the Health Secretary is doing about this issue in the UK? The short answer is next to nothing. True, the Coalition government supports the labelling change in principle and there is a two line commitment in their latest alcohol strategy. But it is being left to the fond hope that the drinks industry will make the change voluntarily.

And what chance of that? 

Last year, the Portman Group – representing the drinks industry – undertook a consultation on what they might do to improve their performance.  Regrettably, they have sidestepped labelling, despite being pressed by health lobbying organisations to do so. Why doesn’t the industry come clean on what they are selling the public?

Maybe we will get an answer from the government tonight? But I for one doubt it.

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