Is it what is says on the tin?
Ahead of the EU Food Information Regulation that comes into effect in December 2014, Clare Wood, owner and founder of Technical Expectations and a member of IFST’s Food Law Group, explains exactly what content labels will require
The labelling of food products is complex and is governed by a mass of laws, regulations, codes of practice and guidance. This is to ensure that the information on the food labels is clear, consistent and easy for consumers to understand. Consumers should then be able to buy according to their particular requirements, be it for diet and health, personal taste, preferences, or cost. They should also be able to make comparisons with similar products, in the assumption that the information on the label is correct.
Key principles and what to avoid
The key principle of food labelling is that the food label should not mislead the consumer. Falsely describing, advertising or presenting food is an offence, and the laws help protect consumers against dishonest labelling and misdescription. This includes all words and pictorial representations. However, misdescription in itself is nothing new. Food fraud through misdescription has been around for a very long time – probably as long as food itself has been sold! Once upon a time it might have been watered down beer, or bread bulked out with sawdust.
Recent cases include ‘vegetable oil’ coloured with chlorophyll being labelled as ‘olive oil’, melamine in milk powder and even processed meat products containing horsemeat. With today’s rising food prices, increased costs for farmers and producers and globalisation of food production, the opportunities for food fraudsters are attractive. Therefore, labelling experts have to be on guard to challenge information and be ‘food detectives’ looking for ingredients that may not have been declared to their full extent.
When compiling the pack copy for the generation of artwork, accuracy of information is paramount. A significant labelling error is the omission of key data. The biggest cause of product recall in the UK is due to inaccurate or missing allergen declarations on packaging – a costly mistake for any manufacturer, in terms of both finances and reputation.
The Basics of Current EU Food Labelling Legislation (FLR)
Until December 13th 2014, the main piece of legislation that all pre-packaged foods sold within the EU has to comply with is the Food Labelling Regulations 1996 (FLR). This states that all pre-packaged foods have to be labelled with: the name of the food; a list of ingredients; Quantitative Ingredient Declaration (QUID); durability date; any special storage instructions; the name and address of the company in the EU selling the food; the place of origin (where failure to do so may mislead); and instructions for use, where required.
Under separate pieces of legislation, if a product contains any of the 14 allergens (cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, molluscs, eggs, fish, peanuts, nuts, soybeans, milk, celery, mustard, sesame, lupin and sulphur dioxide at levels above 10mg/kg) these should also be declared, in close proximity to the ingredients list. Quantity marking is regulated by the weights and measures legislation and alcoholic strength is required on alcoholic products. Nutritional information is currently voluntary.
To give a bit more detail on each of the mandatory requirements:
– The name of the food: The name of the food should accurately describe the product, and not mislead the consumer. There are customary names such as ‘fish fingers’ and ‘toad in the hole’ which, in time, come to be accepted by the consumer without it needing any further explanation.
– Ingredients: These should be listed in descending order of ingoing weight at the time of manufacture of the food.
– QUID: This should be declared when an ingredient is emphasised as present on the label through words, pictures of graphics, unless it is in small quantities for the purpose of flavouring. The ingoing percentage of the ingredient by weight or volume should be used.
– Products should declare a durability date (use by, best before, best before end) and any special storage conditions if the validity of the date depends on them.
– The country of origin should be declared if its omission would mislead the consumer – for example, a product named ‘Spanish Style Paella’ that had a picture of Spain and Spanish flags on the packaging, but was actually made in Scunthorpe, should declare ‘Made in the UK’ to avoid misleading the consumer.
– Instructions for use should be declared, where applicable, to ensure correct utilisation of the food. These should ideally be in text form, rather than pictures.
The list above is just the basics of the mandatory declarations on a label. Now other requirements need to be considered. What about health and nutrition claims? When can these be added, and what wording can be used? What is the difference between ‘source of’ and ‘high’ fibre claims? Is the product ‘low fat’, ‘light’, ‘lite’, or ‘fat free’? These are all regulated nutrition claims and need expert advice on whether they can be used or not. A health claim is defined as a statement that suggests or implies that a relationship exists between a food or one of its constituents and health. Health claims can only be used if they are registered on the EU register of Health Claims, and that the appropriate conditions of use are met. Mandatory warnings for certain ingredients (for example, caffeine or whether the product is packed in a protective atmosphere) need to be declared. If a product has a new ingredient, has this new ingredient got demonstrable significant history of consumption in the European Union before 15 May 1997? If not, the ingredients will be considered ‘Novel Foods’ and will not be permitted for use unless approved on the Novel Foods Register.
This is not exhaustive, and the list of regulations to check is endless!
Each product label has to be considered individually, and relevant pieces of legislation, regulations, codes of practice and guidance considered and challenged for that product.
What will change?
The EU Food Information Regulation (FIR), which was published in November 2011, enters fully into force on 13th December 2014 – and all labels in the European Union should comply with this legislation by this date. The FIR streamlines current legislation on food labelling and nutrition labelling into a single EU regulation, and also introduces new labelling requirements. The change in labelling requirements is so significant, that almost every food label in the EU will have to be amended by this date.
The biggest change is the introduction of a minimum font size for mandatory labelling text, along with mandatory nutrition information, in a prescribed format, and the requirement to highlight allergens in the list of ingredients. For the first time, rules have been introduced on the declaration of voluntary nutrition signposts on the front of packs. Certain product-specific requirements are also introduced, including labelling of ‘defrosted’, so-called ‘imitation foods’ and nano ingredients.
Mandatory labelling information must be given priority over any voluntary labelling information and after 13 December 2014, the date mark is no longer included in the primary field of vision. Small packs and non-prepacked foods are exempt from some of the mandatory labelling information, so only certain information has to be provided.
There are many other requirements in the FIR that regulatory advisors should be aware of – to name a few, for example, the generic term ‘vegetable oil’ is no longer permitted, dairy products cannot be declared with ‘added ingredients’, there are new requirements on the declarations of minced meat, and ‘added water’ above 5% should be declared for all products with the appearance of a cut, joint, slice or portion of meat or fish – there is no longer the exemption for cured raw products to declare added water above 10%.
In summary, the FIR has consolidated current legislation on food labelling and nutrition into one document. However, the changes are so significant that it is clear to the labelling experts, that in the short-term, generating accurate labelling is going to be more complex. There will be demands on both retailers and manufacturers not only to get their product labels compliant by 13th December 2014, but to do it in optimum time to avoid costly packaging write-offs.