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How is food labelling within the EU going to change?

Back in December food labelling within the EU got a whole lot more complicated, by the publication into law of the food information to consumer regulations 2011

Current EU food law requires that all food and beverage products distributed and sold within the EU must comply with food labelling legislation; which is currently based upon the Food Labelling Directive 2000/13. To complicate matters, in December 2011 the new Food Information to Consumers Regulations (FIR) was finally published into EU law following years of discussion and debate at Commission level. These new Regulations bring with them additional requirements applicable to food manufacturers and retailers, the majority of which must be in place by the 13th December 2014. Food businesses producing products which do not comply with the new requirements after this date could face sanctions which include fines, forfeiture of product and negative PR. You may think this is a long way off, however, when you consider that an average food business may have around 50 different product lines (for retailers this can be as few as 1000 lines) and considering that almost every label will need to change, you can see how colossal a task this really is. Food businesses may opt to graduate the change over time to spread the workload and obviously the cost; however new products under development also require future proofing to ensure Regulatory compliance, so you will begin to see the first flurries of “new” labels into the market very shortly.
Unfortunately I can’t go over every change within this article as the regulation itself which contains sixty three pages, some fifty five articles and a raft of annexes within those pages. What I will do is go over some of the major changes you are likely to see.
I’m going to start with nutritional information. Under current legislation providing nutritional information for your product is only compulsory if a nutrition claim is made (namely low fat, high protein, contains Vitamin D)’ whilst in all other cases it may be provided voluntarily. If provided however it must to be provided in one of the following formats as detailed in the regulations, namely: the big four;

Energy
Protein
Carbohydrate
Fat

In that order; or you can use the big eight;

Energy
Protein
Carbohydrate
of which sugars
fat
of which saturates
Fibre
Sodium

In that order. Under the Food Information Regulations nutritional information will become mandatory and must be provided in the following format,

Energy
Fat
of which saturates
Carbohydrates
of which sugars
Fibre
Protein
Salt

The main changes being the order in which they are presented, so fat has moved up the table to just underneath energy. Also manufacturers will no longer be allowed to list sodium, they must list salt. This has caused unrest within the dairy industry as milk contains naturally occurring sodium. The concern is that milk producers are going to have to state that there is a presence of salt within the product. This could be somewhat off-putting to the consumer, seeing salt labelled on a bottle of milk. The European Commission have stated that in these cases the manufacturer will be allowed to state that salt is due to a presence of naturally occurring sodium and that this statement can be next to the table, but not within it.
Allergens are a major concern to food manufacturers as they are to the people who suffer with them. There are still the original fourteen declarable allergen categories namely cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, peanuts, milk, sesame, sulphur dioxide greater than ten parts per million, eggs, nuts, celery, lupin, fish, soybeans, mustard and molluscs. However, the Food Information Regulations has changed the way in which allergens must be labelled. Current legislation doesn’t recognise the allergen box you see on many food products (although its presence is regarded as “best practice”) with allergens requiring their presence to be made known within the ingredients list. However the European Commission are currently debating whether the allergen box can be provided due to the interpretation of a specific Article. In addition, allergens will have to be made more noticeable for the consumer by using a different font, emboldening the font or using a different colour. The idea behind this is to encourage consumers to read through the ingredients to identify allergens instead of relying on them being in an allergen box on the front of the pack; an element which trending on food recall alerts over the past few years would tend to agree with considering the significant proportion of recalls caused by incorrect allergen labelling (allergens missed in the box but within the ingredients list and vice versa).
The Food Information Regulations have also introduced something called place of provenance. Under current legislation food manufacturers have to provide the products place of origin if leaving it off would potentially mislead the consumer. The place of origin is the place where the product last underwent major processing. For example, a manufacturer produces a chicken pie in the UK which contains chicken from Poland. Britain is the place where the product last underwent major processing and as such legally the product can now be called a British Chicken Pie, subject to the general caveat of “misleading the consumer”. Under the Food Information Regulations however recognition is provided that it is the quality or primary ingredient that many consumers find is key information. The new requirements require the “place of provenance” to be provided if it is different from the country of origin; in real terms requiring a label stating British on said Chicken Pie, but also requiring the chicken within to be identified as from Poland.
These are just a few major changes; there are many other changes such as minimum font sizes, changes to meat products, new warnings and amended ingredients names which are just far too numerous list here.
So why did the Commission see a need to re-hash current labelling requirements, which the industry as a whole felt were doing a pretty decent job? The geeks amongst you may have read through the “preamble” which can be found at the beginning of any EU legislation; the preamble proving you with the reasoning behind the legislation as well as acting as a guide for interpretation. Reading through a common theme emerges, namely protecting the consumer and providing information on labels consistently throughout all Member States of Europe. Current legislation being based on a Directive provides its own challenges, with Directives requiring a “copy and paste” approach into the legislation of each individual Member States. This gives rise to inconsistencies in the interpretation of some aspects; and “gold plating” of others, roughly resulting in additional requirements specific to that individual Member State. The ethos of “free trade” sits firmly behind the creation of the EU and as such idiosyncrasies such as this can be a significant barrier to trade between Member States, where realistically food labels should require translation into the language of the country of destination and limited re-labelling; something which is not the case at present. So hopefully the food information regulations will open up the borders between Member States and with them new markets for the exploitation of the UK food business bringing with them new opportunities and hopefully profitable returns. In the current economic climate those first to market are often the most likely to succeed, so rather than see these new requirements as onerous and costly, maybe we as an industry be looking at this as a whole new chapter in the international food market. As a prominent high street bank states in its adverts at present “we see even the smallest business operating internationally in the future”; and on that note I wholeheartedly agree.

by S. C.
02 july 2012, World News > Europe

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