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Food labelling has become prominent in the media recently, particularly since the death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse who died in July 2016 after eating a Pret a Manger artichoke, olive and tapenade baguette containing sesame seeds, to which she was severely allergic. They were not listed on the labelling as an ingredient. As a consequence of campaigning by Natasha’s family and others, Natasha’s Law came into effect on 1st October 2021. It requires all food retailers to display full ingredient and allergen labelling on every food item made on the premises and pre-packed for direct sale, including sandwiches, cakes and salads.
Food Minister Zac Goldsmith said: “…. This is a significant moment for the millions of allergy sufferers in England and a fitting tribute to Nadim and Tanya Ednan-Laperouse’s tireless campaigning. The introduction of this law will make it easier for allergy sufferers to make clear, safe choices when buying food.”
According to the British Medical Journal (BMJ), between 1998 and 2018, 101,891 people were admitted to hospital for anaphylaxis. Of these admissions, 30,700 (30%) were coded as due to a food trigger. The largest increase in hospital admissions was seen in children younger than 15 years, with an increase from 2.1 to 9.2 admissions per 100,000 population per year (an annual increase of 6.6%, compared with 5.9% in people aged 15–59 years and 2.1% in those aged 60 years and older). Over the 20-year period, 152 deaths were identified where the fatal event was probably caused by food-induced anaphylaxis.
However, food allergens are not the only information that should be contained on food labelling in the UK to ensure that consumers are protected.
What is food labelling?
A food label, the information presented on a food product, is one of the most important and direct means of communicating information to the consumer. All foodstuffs sold in the UK must be clearly labelled, although there are a few exceptions, such as foods which are prepacked for direct sale, for example food sold loose from the delicatessen counter of the supermarket.
The internationally accepted definition of a food label according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is “any tag, brand, mark, pictorial or other descriptive matter, written, printed, stencilled, marked, embossed or impressed on, or attached to, a container of food or food product”. This information, which includes items such as ingredients, quality and nutritional value, can accompany the food or be displayed near the food to promote its sale.
The FAO promotes food labelling as an effective tool to protect consumer health in terms of food safety and nutrition. Food labels convey information about the product’s identity and contents, and on how to handle, prepare and consume the food safely. One of the main aims of a food labelling policy is to prevent food sellers from deliberately misleading consumers through false representations on a package; in other words, from committing food fraud.
Other aims of food labelling include to:
- Provide nutritional information. This helps consumers to understand the composition of their food such as its vitamins, minerals, calories, fats, etc. This information is fundamental in ensuring that consumers are eating the kinds of food that are good for them.
- Provide warnings and important information about the ways to use a product, for example storage and cooking instructions, which are necessary for keeping food safe.
- Detect ingredients that could cause harmful reactions such as peanuts, soybeans, milk, eggs, fish, crustaceans, wheat and tree nuts. Reactions to food affect 10–25% of the population in developed countries.
- Prevent food waste. Food labels, when read correctly, can stop consumers from throwing out good food. Date marking on food labels lets the consumer know for how long a product is safe to eat. This is important to avoid getting sick from expired food. In the EU, approximately 10% of food that is wasted is linked to date markings.
- Indicate the food’s origin. This can help to support local food producers and also provide information about the food’s carbon footprint.
What is prepacked food labelling?
Prepacked food is defined in Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers as “… food and the packaging into which it was put before being offered for sale, whether such packaging encloses the food completely or only partially, but in any event in such a way that the contents cannot be altered without opening or changing the packaging …”. This basically means any food put into packaging before being offered for sale, such as a jar of pasta sauce, a tin of soup, a sealed packet of biscuits, a bar of chocolate, ready meals, or packaged sandwiches and cakes. All these foods must display food labelling on the packaging.
What is non-prepacked food labelling?
Non-prepacked food means food that is sold or displayed without packaging, such as ice cream displayed in a freezer and served into a tub or meals served in a restaurant and food from a takeaway such as a sandwich prepared in front of the consumer. It also includes food that is packaged at the request of the consumer such as food that is sold or displayed without packaging but is placed in packaging after purchase, such as a joint of ham displayed loose on a deli counter, slices of which are cut and placed into sealed bags when a consumer makes a purchase.
For these foods, mandatory food information must be either on a label attached to the food, or on a notice, ticket, menu or label that is readily discernible by a purchaser at the place where the purchaser chooses that food.
What must be included on food labels and packaging?
Food labels must include the following information:
- Name of the food – this must be a description of the food item, such as:
– List of ingredients, in descending order of weight.
- Any necessary warnings, such as:
– Appropriate durability indication – this must be expressed as a use-by or best before date.
- Special storage conditions or conditions of use.
- Name and address of the manufacturer.
- Origin/provenance, if failure to give these particulars may mislead to a material degree.
- Instructions for use, if it would be difficult to make appropriate use of the food without instructions.
- Weight marking.
How to display mandatory information on food labels and packaging
Labelling details must be easy to understand, clearly legible and indelible. Labels must be placed in clear view so as to be easily visible to the customer. All labels for prepacked food or drink sold in the United Kingdom must be written in English. It is illegal to sell food labelled in a foreign language, even if it is an internationally recognised brand.
All the mandatory information must be printed using a font with a minimum x-height of 1.2 millimetres. If the largest surface area of packaging is less than 80cm2, then a minimum x-height of 0.9mm can be used.
An example of the information contained on a food label might be:
|By law back of pack nutrition labels must include:||This will be displayed:|
|Energy||…in calories (kcal) and kilojoules (kJ)|
|Fat content||…in grams (g)|
|Saturated fat content||…in grams (g)|
|Carbohydrate content||…in grams (g)|
|Sugar content||…in grams (g)|
|Protein content||…in grams (g)|
|Salt content||…in grams (g)|
Here is an example of what you may see on a food label:
|Dried and sweetened dried fruit (25%) [sultanas, sweetened dried pineapple (10%)] (sugar, pineapple, acid: citric acid, preservative: sulphur dioxide), dates, raisins, barley flakes, oat flakes, wheat flakes, toasted and malted wheat flakes (wheat, barley malt extract).|
|For allergens, see ingredients in bold. May also contain nuts and milk.|
What are the food labelling requirements for prepacked foods?
The following information is mandatory on prepacked foods:
- The name of the food.
- An ingredients list.
- Quantitative Ingredient Declarations (QUID) – this is an indication of how much of the finished product is made up of a certain ingredient; it is always expressed as a percentage. The QUID must either be given immediately after the ingredient appears in the name of the food or, more commonly, in brackets immediately after the ingredient appears in the ingredients list.
- A nutritional declaration – nutritional information has to be presented in a specific order, for example, energy, fat, saturates, carbohydrates, sugars, protein and salt.
- Allergens – allergenic ingredients must be emphasised, for example in bold, italics or a different colour. Affected ingredients include gluten, eggs, milk, nuts, celery, sesame, mustard and crustaceans. This legal requirement was extended to prepacked for direct sale (PPDS) food in October 2021. The difference between prepacked and prepacked for direct sale foods (PPDS) is that PPDS foods have been made, packaged and sold directly to consumers all on the same site, for example a quiche made and packaged in a deli shop on the same site.
- Durability date marking – either a use-by or a best before date depending on the nature of the food and how long it can be expected to stay edible.
- A net quantity declaration – this means the weight of food or volume in the case of liquids, less the weight of the packaging. The indication must be given in kilograms or grams for solids, and in litres, centilitres or millilitres for liquids.
- The name and address of the Food Business Operator (FBO) – this is normally that of the manufacturer but could also be that of an importer. The food business under whose name the food is marketed is the business that is ultimately responsible for the food.
- Storage instructions – this will only need to include storage instructions if they are necessary to ensure that the food continues to be edible and maintains its quality until the durability date that you have put on the food, for example, keep refrigerated, store in a cool dry place or refrigerate after opening.
- Instructions for use, where required – this will only need to include instructions for use if the consumer would find it difficult to use the product correctly without them; for example, include cooking times for ready meals that need to be cooked in a microwave and mixing instructions for powdered products.
- Origin marking – origin labelling will only be required if consumers might be misled if the origin is not stated, for example if a product described as a traditional Italian recipe is made in the UK.
- Nutritional and health claims.
- The alcoholic strength by volume, shown as a percentage, on drinks containing over 1.2% alcohol by volume.
There are a few exceptions where food ingredients do not need to be listed for pre-packaged foods.
These include, for example:
- Fresh fruit and vegetables that have not been peeled, cut or similarly treated.
- Carbonated water that is labelled as Carbonated Water.
- Fermented vinegars derived from single, basic product, such as white wine, with no added ingredients.
- Cheese, butter, fermented milk or cream if its only ingredients are lactic products, food enzymes and microorganism cultures essential to its manufacture.
- Products consisting of a single ingredient where the name of the food is the same as the name of the ingredient or clearly identifies what the ingredient is, for example peanuts or eggs.
- Products on which no side of the packaging or container has a surface area larger than 10cm2.
- Products in glass bottles for reuse that have food information indelibly marked on them and have no other labelling, for example milk bottles.
- Any alcoholic drink containing over 1.2% alcohol by volume.
To label a food product as organic or use phrasing such as “organically grown” the product and farming methods have to meet a series of strict guidelines. A product cannot be labelled as organic if it has more than 5% non-organic ingredients.
Organic food labels must include the:
- Certification code.
- Certification symbol – this will depend on which association accredits the organic produce.
- EU organic logo.
- Origin of raw materials.
- Traceability code.
Anyone selling food over the internet will need to provide full prepacked labelling information on both the website and the product. The information should appear on the same page as the product and be available to the consumer before they make a purchase.
What are the food labelling requirements for non-prepacked foods?
For non-prepacked food, the labelling must contain:
- The name of the food.
- A QUID declaration for products containing meat; for example, lasagne made with pork must show the QUID for the pork because it characterises the product and distinguishes it from a lasagne usually made with beef.
- The presence of any of the 14 allergens which must be provided to consumers. Food businesses need to tell customers if any food they provide contains any of the listed allergens as an ingredient. This also applies to additives, processing aids and any other substances which are present in the final product.
These allergens are:
– Cereals containing gluten such as barley and oats
– Crustaceans such as prawns, crabs and lobsters
– Molluscs such as mussels and oysters
– Sulphur dioxide / sulphites, if the sulphur dioxide and sulphites are at a concentration of more than ten parts per million
– Tree nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts.
On 6 April 2022, the Calorie Labelling Regulations came into force, and businesses are required to list calorie information on all food and drinks that are prepared and sold for immediate consumption that is non-prepacked food; examples of this include a meal that is ordered at a restaurant, a burger that is prepared and packaged at the business premises ready for sale, or a croissant that is on a shelf and then packaged once bought by a consumer. The calorie information will need to be provided at the point at which the consumer chooses what items to buy, for example on a physical menu, an online menu or on third-party delivery platforms.
The information that will need to be displayed includes:
- The energy content of a single portion of the food or, if the item purchased by the customer has been prepared for consumption by more than one person, of the whole item, in kilocalories, followed by the letters, kcal.
- The size of the portion to which the information relates.
- A statement that “adults need around 2000 kcal a day”.
Businesses that are exempt from the Calorie Labelling Regulations include:
- Educational institutions for pupils below the age of 18.
- Care homes.
- Military establishments.
What are the legal requirements for food labelling?
There are a number of laws and regulations that apply to food labelling in the UK.
Key legislation includes:
From 1 October 2022, food products sold in GB must include a UK, Channel Islands or the Isle of Man address for the food business. If the food business is not in GB, they must include the address of the importer, based in the UK, Channel Islands or the Isle of Man. Food businesses can continue to use an EU, GB or NI address for the Food Business Operator (FBO) on food products sold in GB until 30 September 2022.
What could happen if food is not labelled properly?
Depending on the type of food business and the food products that are handled, there can be varying consequences associated with incorrect food labelling. At the start of this article, the case of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse suffering anaphylactic shock highlighted the tragic consequences of improperly labelled foods. Not all incorrect food labelling results in life-threatening reactions; however, it may cause a consumer to suffer allergic reaction symptoms if they are unaware that a food may contain an ingredient that they have an allergy to such as gluten or lactose.
Allergic reaction symptoms can include:
- A raised, itchy red rash (hives); in some cases, the skin can turn red and itchy, but without a raised rash.
- Abdominal pain or diarrhoea.
- Difficulty swallowing.
- Feeling dizzy and lightheaded.
- Feeling sick (nausea) or vomiting.
- Hay fever-like symptoms, such as sneezing or itchy eyes (allergic conjunctivitis).
- Swelling of the face, mouth (angioedema), throat or other areas of the body.
- Tingling or itching in the mouth.
- Wheezing or shortness of breath.
Any of these reactions are at the best unpleasant, and at worst could develop into more serious, even life-threatening conditions.
If foods such as meat are incorrectly labelled, there may be possibilities that consumers consume meats not allowed by their religious beliefs, for example a ready meal containing a prohibited meat not listed in the ingredients.
Research from 2018 shows that half of all the food bought by families in the UK is now “ultra-processed”. So rather than fresh home-cooked meals, a lot of us are eating food made in factories with industrial ingredients and additives, so correct food labelling can help us make an informed decision when shopping.
Dietary and nutritional issues might impact consumers if there is incorrect food labelling; for example, salt is added to many everyday foods, including things you might not think of as being salty such as bread, cakes and biscuits. Too much salt can increase your blood pressure over time, which can increase the risk of developing heart disease and stroke, so always check the food label. However, watch out, because some products label sodium instead of salt. This is not perhaps a case of not labelling food properly but perhaps a case of the labelling being confusing. To confuse the issue even more, sometimes the sodium is listed in milligrams instead of grams. The recommended maximum intake of salt per day is 6g. Low salt means 0.3g or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium, or 100mg sodium), High salt means 1.5g or more per 100g (or 0.6g sodium, or 600mg sodium).
Some of the consequences for businesses of not labelling food properly might include action from trading standards. Trading standards services enforce the law across a range of subject areas, including food labelling.
Some breaches may result in a simple caution – this is a formal warning – which may be offered as an alternative to prosecution, where it is in the public interest to do so. In some cases, trading standards services can issue a notice requiring the business to take action or to stop doing something, without the need to apply to the court for an order. These notices have different names and different conditions depending on the law they are made under such as food that is not properly labelled. In general, there will be a deadline to comply with the notice; if a business fails to comply with a notice, this can lead to court action.
Many breaches of trading standards law are criminal offences and can be prosecuted in the magistrates’ court or Crown Court.
A successful prosecution may have a range of consequences, including:
- The trader gets a criminal record.
- A punishment or sentence. Trading standards offences can usually be punished with a fine, and in many cases the amount is unlimited. For the most serious cases imprisonment is an option, with maximum periods of up to two years for some trading standards offences. Where a business is prosecuted for fraud, theft or money laundering in addition to or instead of trading standards offences, or for offences under intellectual property law (trademarks and copyright), maximum penalties can be very high indeed, up to 14 years’ imprisonment.
- An order to pay compensation to victims.
- An order to pay the costs of the investigation and prosecution.
- A criminal behaviour order restricting future conduct.
- Disqualification as a company director where the offence was connected with a company.
- Confiscation of assets and money under proceeds-of-crime legislation.
- Forfeiture of any illegal or infringing goods and any equipment used in committing the offence.
The Calorie Labelling Regulations state that local Enforcement Officers will have the power to serve Improvement Notices on businesses where a qualifying business is believed to be non-compliant. The Improvement Notice gives businesses the opportunity to take remedial action. If a business does not comply with the Improvement Notice, Enforcement Officers have the right to impose a fixed monetary penalty of £2,500.
Other consequences that a business may suffer for not labelling food properly might include, but are not limited to:
- Loss of reputation – In the age of social media, food scare stories travel at warp speed, often before the facts of the matter have even been established. Rest assured that if one of your products has caused a health scare, it’s not just the person affected who will think a lot less of your brand name. Bad publicity will affect the business’s bottom line.
- Product recalls – If one of your customers detects a problem with your ingredients, or batch testing reveals allergen contamination, you could be left responsible for the cost of expansive, expensive product recalls. This could have a significant impact on the business’s bottom line.
Everyone is aware of the “Ingredients” section of food packaging, and tied to this section are the allergen warnings and nutritional information. Just these little bits of information give consumers an understanding of what a product contains and how it relates to their health and lifestyle. Food labels should generally also contain information related to the usage of the product, how the product should be stored and how long it should be kept on the shelves or in the home. Some items may need cooking instructions. It is so important that this information is comprehensive, clearly understood and easy to access so that the consumer is buying from a position of knowledge, so that they are making informed purchasing decisions. Buyers buy from a brand that they trust, and properly labelled products that truthfully and accurately explain what a food product contains are part of the identification of that trusted food brand.