Product labelling – all change
The food and drink industry is facing one of the biggest changes to food labelling legislation for a generation. Ruth Price, principal food law adviser at Campden BRI, explains why the demand for clear explanations is at an all-time high
Each month, Campden BRI’s Food Law Advisory service receives hundreds of requests for information and advice from food and ingredient manufacturers, retailers, caterers and enforcement authorities. Currently, one of the key drivers for this is the European Union’s Food Information to Consumers Regulation (FIC).
Over the years, high profile food scares – from Salmonella in eggs to the recent horsemeat controversy – together with a steadily increasing consumer interest in the composition and provenance of food, has resulted in an ever-changing
legislative environment. New or amended controls form part of an extensive regulatory framework governing the production and marketing of food and drink. Understanding and applying the many and varied controls can be challenging for the food industry. Getting it wrong can be costly both directly, because of product write-offs and recalls, and indirectly through reputational damage with supply chain partners and customers.
Whether it is the ability to manage hygiene systems, meet additive controls or fully and accurately label products, food business operators need accessible and accurate food legislation advice to help them untangle the myriad complex controls and the new and emerging trends.
One new piece of European legislation in particular is causing food companies to seek advice. The European Union’s Food Information to Consumers Regulation (FIC) came into force on 13 December 2011 and introduced changes which will mean that almost every food and drink label will need a major overhaul before the end of 2014.
We now know in many areas what changes to food labels are going to be required and the pressure is on to comply in time. Not surprisingly, in such a complex area there are certain exemptions to the general requirements, and exceptions to these exemptions! There are also a series of transition periods and many promised additional rules still to be laid down.
For example, the new provisions on naming minced meat will apply within weeks. Thereafter, the first detailed rules on origin indications for meats and so-called ‘foreign primary ingredients’ are due at the end of this year. At this point, country of origin labelling will become compulsory for fresh and frozen meat of pig, sheep, goats and poultry and also for primary ingredients where the country of origin of the primary ingredient is not the same as the stated origin of the food.
Another key change will require compulsory nutritional labelling of pre-packed foods with energy (in both kJ and kcal), fat, saturates, carbohydrates, sugars, protein and salt, along with the levels of any nutrients mentioned in claims. Certain other supplementary nutrients can be listed, but this is a defined and restricted list.
Although the new nutrition labelling requirements do not become obligatory until December 2016 (two years later than most of the other requirements), after December 2014, a nutrition declaration that is provided voluntarily must comply with the mandatory provisions.
‘Front of pack’ information remains voluntary and will continue for energy, fat, saturates, sugar and salt, but the old style GDAs (Guideline Daily Amounts) per portion will no longer be used and instead RIs (Reference Intakes) – as listed in the Annexes to the FIC – should be referred to. Portion size information must be provided in a form that is meaningful for the consumer and the use of ‘traffic light’ or colour coding schemes will be restricted to the Department of Health Guidelines adopted in line with the provisions of the FIC. The additional form of expression that the UK government has recommended is red, amber and green colour coding, based on defined criteria for the use of the colours.
And on the topic of nutrition, it is important to emphasise that one thing that hasn’t changed is the declaration of nutrition and health claims. Nutrition and Health Claims are covered by separate legislation; however, once a nutrition or health claim is made, then the need for nutrition information is triggered and the format will have to comply with the new FIC requirements from December 2014.
Although the changes to allergen labelling requirements are quite simple, requiring the presence of any of 14 listed allergens to be highlighted in some way within the ingredients list to make their presence more obvious to the consumer, it is the provision of voluntary allergen advice boxes that is prompting most enquiries. Such boxes can no longer be used to repeat the list of allergens contained in the product, but can be used instead to signpost the allergen information.
This is only for instances where allergens are intentionally added ingredients. While the provision of voluntary information regarding the risks of cross–contamination is not changing for the moment, the Commission is going to look into ways of making this voluntary information more consistent.
The introduction of mandatory minimum font sizes for the majority of legally required labelling information will mean that businesses will find it increasingly challenging to balance images and marketing messages with mandatory information.
Change is imminent
When this regulation came into force in 2011, the application date of December 2014 seemed quite remote; however with just over a year to go, time is already running short and many companies are seeking advice on ways to ensure compliance in time for the deadline.
Now more than ever, food business operators need authoritative advice to help them understand and interpret the legislation. That advice may take many forms. Increasingly, some companies prefer to opt for a full label review and submit artwork for comment. Label reviews, in particular, can be conducted at any stage in the product development cycle right through to the finished artwork and are an effective way to forewarn of potential difficulties and suggest practical alternatives to becoming fully compliant.
Labels can be reviewed against the full range of UK and EU legislative controls on food labelling and, where changes brought about by the FIC are applicable to the food labels under review, additional comments are made in preparation for December 2014 or the appropriate transition period. Associated guidance from Defra, the Food Standards Agency, the Department of Health, and industry and all known and relevant case law and enforcement opinions should be considered during the process. Getting it wrong can be a costly exercise.
Seeking and acting on authoritative advice may be considered a demonstration of due diligence that both lessens the chance of court proceedings and reduces the likelihood of a prosecution.
While labelling may be a hot topic at the moment, food businesses also have other concerns, such as grappling with the recently amended food additives controls. Here, three old detailed directives were replaced by one new broad ranging regulation. This is the subject of regular enquiries, particularly when deciding on the right food categorisation of a particular food or the maximum permitted level of a specific additive in a food.
Expert legal advice can therefore play an important part in helping businesses successfully to market an increasingly wide range of food and drink that is not only appealing and safe to consume, but also provides the consumer with the information that they need to make informed purchasing choices.
To meet the demand for information on developments with the FIC, as they continue to unfold, Campden BRI is bringing together the relevant government departments and agencies – including Defra and the Department of Health – in an industry seminar to be held at Campden BRI on 3 December. There is also a podcast interview of the topic which can be found at www.campdenbri.co.uk/podcasts.
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