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Heads up to proposed new food legislation

17 March 2008

On 30 January the European Commission adopted its expected proposal for new legislation on the provision of food information to consumers.

The draft proposal consolidates and updates two areas of labelling legislation, namely general food and nutrition. In the UK, this means that our various national Food Labelling Regulations will be replaced.

The EC states that:

"nutrition labelling is an established way for providing information to consumers to support health conscious food choices. There is wide agreement that the effectiveness of nutrition labelling can be strengthened as a means to support consumers ability to choose a balanced diet".

Specifically, in relation to the ongoing front of pack nutrition information debate the EC has said that this divergence in the labelling schemes can create barriers to trade. The proposal therefore states that a single unified way in which on pack nutrition labelling is displayed should be adopted.

Controversially, this backs the Guideline Daily Amounts ("GDA") system of labelling that is currently used by distributors such as Tesco, Somerfield and Morrisions.

Key elements of the proposal

1. General provisions

Essentially, the general provision for food labelling will remain the same under the new Regulation. For example, certain compulsory information which has to be included on the label, such as the name of the product, the list of ingredients, the best before date or use by date of the product, any special conditions of use and the mailing address of the manufacturer, will all still have to feature on the packaging. As always, the information must be clear, easy to read and not misleading to the consumer.

Now, however, the Commission is proposing to make nutritional information mandatory on nearly all processed foods.

2. Front of pack nutritional labelling

The draft Regulation will make front of pack nutritional information mandatory for nearly all pre-packed processed foods. There will be on the front of the pack the energy, fat, saturated fat and controversially carbohydrates, with specific reference to sugars and salt content of the product, expressed in terms of per 100ml / 100g or per portion. In addition, the amount of these elements in relation to the reference intakes will have to be indicated.

There is no uniformed system for the display of front of pack information laid down in the proposal, except for the order of the nutrients and the general requirements for the legibility. Provided the mandatory elements are displayed clearly on the front of the pack, producers will be free to decide how they wish to display this information. Whilst this proposal is welcomed by the GDA camp, currently most GDA UK companies have only five GDAs rather than the six under the EU proposal, which includes carbohydrates.

Consequently, all UK companies would be affected by this current proposal and have to change their packaging. The cost implications of this can be extremely high.

3. Legibility

In order to avoid the common problem of essential information being hidden or too small for the consumer to easily read on food labels, the draft Regulation states that mandatory information must be printed in the minimum size (3mm), with a significant contrast between the writing and the background.

In addition, voluntary information (e.g. slogans or claims) must not be presented in a way that adversely affects the presentation of mandatory information.

The requirement of a minimum font size could add to the ever growing landfill piles as manufacturers are forced to increase their pack sizes to accommodate labelling requirements. Not a proposal that aligns with the recent EC Landfill Directive the aim of which is to help drive waste up the hierarchy through (among other ways) waste minimisation.

4. Allergen labelling

The proposal includes the extension of mandatory allergen labelling on non pre-packed food, including food sold in restaurants and other catering establishments. In particular, asking for allergens to be displayed or be available at the request of the consumers.

5. Origin Labelling

Currently, the draft Regulation proposes to keep country of origin and place of provenance labelling on food voluntary, unless its absence could mislead the consumer. This has received much criticism from the meat industry as, at the moment, beef is the only meat that must carry country of origin labelling following the wake of BSE. Many producers hoped that beef labelling regulations would be extended to other meats, and the National Farmers Union agrees with this.

Additional criteria on origin labelling includes that the country of origin or place of provenance of the main ingredients must also be listed if there are ingredients which originate from a different place than the finished product e.g. butter churned in England from Belgium milk could be labelled as "Produced in England from Belgium milk".

Producers may, if they wish to, put a "Made in the EU" label on their food stuffs, provided the food was produced in the EU. Alternatively, they can choose to indicate the Member State.

Watch this space

The Food Standards Agency has described the proposal as "The first step in the process of deciding new Regulations". It has now launched a UK wide public consultation on the proposal, taking views from stakeholders, including the food industry, consumer and enforcement groups and the general public. This consultation is to help the Government in its negotiations on the proposal.

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The content on this page is provided for the purposes of general interest and information. It contains only brief summaries of aspects of the subject matter and does not provide comprehensive statements of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not provide a substitute for it.

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