New labels ruling intensifies food war with France

Crackdown on 'misleading' products launched as a dispute over EU subsidies threatens to increase disharmony
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The food war with France deepened last night after the Minister of Agriculture, Nick Brown, announced that food labelling rules are to be tightened up to help British consumers to buy only British produce.

The food war with France deepened last night after the Minister of Agriculture, Nick Brown, announced that food labelling rules are to be tightened up to help British consumers to buy only British produce.

Mr Brown, who is operating a personal boycott of French goods, said trading standards officers will get tougher guidelines to crack down on misleading "UK produced" labels.

It will be seen as a further tit-for-tat measure against the illegal French boycott of British beef exports, which will be examined today by a European scientific committee.

Tempers already frayed by the French beef embargo have been raised by the disclosure that French livestock is being fed sewage sludge. The Agriculture Minister was told by his advisers that restrictions on French meat would not be justified. Downing Street - fearing a trade war - said Tony Blair had talked to Mr Brown on Saturday and "fully supported" his rejection of calls for French beef to be barred from Britain.

But the latest move clearly to identify Continental produced food will be seen as a retaliatory measure. Mr Brown has bowed to pressure from farmers and opposition MPs over examples where Continental-produced food has been labelled in supermarkets as "produced in the UK".

Farmers have protested that some companies have labelled products with Union Jacks and slogans such as "traditional British food" when the ingredients come from outside the UK. The regulations will force producers to say when meat does not come from Britain - and give this disclosure as much prominence as the claim that the item is "British".

Mr Brown said: "It is a pretty horrible and disgusting thing to pad out the animal feed with human excrement and animal excrement." He added: "I am going to tighten up the labelling rules next week to be more explicit than we are now."

He also told BBC's Breakfast With Frost programme that he took "careful note" of scientists' warnings that French meat was unsafe and he had asked his advisers to "draw together" information to see if there was any threat to public health.

The Liberal Democrat agriculture spokesman, Colin Breed, welcomed the new rules. "The Liberal Democrats have been calling for tougher labelling for a long time now. Any news that this is to be brought forward is welcome," he said.

The Tory spokesman on Europe, Archie Norman, accused Mr Brown of being a "wimp" by not taking tougher retaliatory action. Mr Norman, head of the Asda supermarket chain, said Mr Brown had been given a "golden and legitimate" opportunity to act. "We are not a nation of wimps and the public expect decisive action," he said.

* Britons instinctively want to buy British food but they have problems identifying it in shops, according to a survey commissioned by the National Farmers' Union. Three in four of the 1,000 adults questioned believe British food is the best quality compared with other countries, but nearly 40 per cent said it is not prominent on shop shelves.

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