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Food Labelling: Why Less Is Definitely More

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Food Labelling: Why Less Is Definitely More

October 21
20:07 2013
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As politicians try hard to convince us that changing packaging information will cure the obesity epidemic as well as reduce the mountain of food waste we discard each year, food labelling is becoming big news. And, while their objectives are admirable, is it really credible to claim that food labelling is the answer, and will the proposed changes have the desired effect?

New EU food labelling regulations which aim to deal with a whole host of different issues have just been finalised. As if the Eurocrats did not have enough to worry about with the eurozone crisis, but encouraging EU citizens to eat a healthy diet remains high on their agenda. European politicians believe that consumers want clearer, standardised and simpler labelling to allow them to make healthier choices. This may be true, but if you asked shoppers whether they wanted cheaper booze or free sweets they’d probably say yes to that too. The real question is whether changing the information on labels will influence our eating habits. The new rules will certainly change what we see on packets. A minimum font size of 1.2 millimetres has been introduced, and allergens will have to be included in a contrasting font so that they can be identified easily. Allergens will also need to be identified on non-pre-packed food, including that served in restaurants and other outlets. Every pack will now need to carry nutritional information, the bare minimum of which must include: the amount of fats; saturates; carbohydrates; protein; sugar; and salt per 100 grams. Other ingredients can be included but there are specific guidelines so manufacturers will be limited in what they can do. Another controversial area in the new rules is the mandatory country-of-origin labelling. At the moment this is required for beef, honey, fruit-and-vegetables, and olive oil but this will soon be extended to pork, lamb, goat and poultry. The EU is looking at more rules in this area initially focussing on milk, single-ingredient products and products where one ingredient forms more than 50% of the food. However, origin can be a difficult issue; where, fo example, does a blended fruit juice containing ingredients from several countries actually come from? Where it was manufactured? Where it was bottled? Where did the main ingredients originate? A Tory Peer, Baroness Oppenheim Barnes, has branded the new labelling rules ‘futile, pathetic and unenforceable’. Vehement as her comments may seem, the reality is that only two kinds of people actually examine food labels in detail: those suffering from allergies or health problems; and those on diets. As far as the rest of us are concerned, if we want to eat a cake we will buy one, even though we know it is bad for us. We don’t need to read a label to tell us that, and it certainly would not impact on our food choice. Not to be outdone by its EU compatriots, the UK government has also entered the fray with new guidance on which dates should go on packaging. There is a bewildering variety currently being utilised, including: Sell By; Use By; Display Until; and Best Before. Most consumers have never given any thought to the difference between these and only those in the food industry really understand why different foods carry different date labels. The Government’s own view is that the only dates relevant to consumers are those preceded by Best Before and Use By, and that only these should appear on labels. The rest is simply stock-control information which is the concern of the merchant and should be dealt with accordingly. If the Government really wanted to reduce the amount of food wasted – 0.45 tons per household year in the UK or £1,000-worth per household, every year – then it can be argued that its approach should be more radical. Use-by dates should therefore be the only required information on packaging, because food consumed after that point is dangerous. So, if politicians want to use labelling as a tool to reduce waste or improve public health, then their focus should be on including only the most important information on labels, and leaving out the rest. If they do this, there’s a good chance that we as consumers might actually pay attention for once. 

www.brodies.com

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Catherine Feechan, a Corporate Partner at Brodies Solictors, examines the issues surrounding food labelling, and asks whether consumers would be better off with simplicity rather than overload…

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