Food labelling requirements
Even over the past decade, the amount of information we see – and seek – on the food we buy has grown massively. But why, and why is food labelling important?
Our lifestyle choices, religious and/or ethical beliefs and medical conditions can all influence the food we buy.
Food labelling is important for both producers, sellers and consumers. It means that consumers can make informed choices about what they’re buying and consume it safely. Clearly labelled products can also be a matter of life and death for people with food allergies.
So what has to be on our food, and what is optional?
The legal requirements
In the UK, there is some food labelling that is required by law. This labelling covers food safety and ensures that customers know exactly what they’re buying, what it’s made of, and where it’s from.
The following information must appear by law on food labels and packaging*:
Name of the food
The name of the food must be clearly stated on the packaging and not be misleading.
If the food has been processed – altered in some way during preparation – this must be included in the title, eg ‘smoked bacon’.
List of ingredients
Food or drink products with two or more ingredients (including water and additives), must list them all, in order of weight, with the main ingredient first. If the product contains any of the following ingredients, they also need to be labelled:
● sweeteners or sugars
● aspartame and colourings
Food products that contain any of the 14 allergens as an ingredient must be listed. These must be highlighted using a different font, style or background colour.
These allergens are: celery, cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, lupin, milk, molluscs, mustard, peanuts, sesame, soybeans, sulphur dioxide and sulphites (if at a concentration of more than ten parts per million) and tree nuts.
In October 2021, Natasha’s Law will bring new regulations about allergy labelling in England.
Quantitative declaration of ingredients (QUID)
The QUID tells customers the percentage of particular ingredients contained in a food product.
All packaged foods above 5g or 5ml (except herbs and spices) must show the net quantity on the label, or if packaged in liquid, the drained net weight.
Storage conditions and date labelling
This is the ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date and information such as whether the product needs to be refrigerated or can be frozen.
Name and address of manufacturer
There must be a name and postal address (of the manufacturer, packer or seller) on the label – you can’t just use an e-mail address or phone number.
Country of origin or place of provenance
The label must clearly show where the food has come from and the origin of the main ingredients given if different from where the final product is made. Some food has a protected status, for example, ‘Jersey Royal’ potatoes must have been grown in Jersey.
Instructions on how to prepare and cook the food, including in a microwave, must be given on the label if needed. The oven temperature and cooking time will usually be stated too.
The mandatory nutrition declaration must be clearly presented in a specific format and give values for energy and six nutrients. It must meet minimum font size requirements. (retail only)
Some specific types of food also require additional labelling, including bread, chocolate, honey and meat products like sausages and pies. There’s more information about this on the gov.uk website http://bit.ly/3vk6QUT
Producers and retailers may choose to add more information to packaging, for example to target a specific market or to highlight a wider campaign message for their business, like healthy eating.
While these additions may not be required by law, some still have rules.
To say that a product is ‘organic’, at least 95% of the ingredients must be organic and there are rules about how organic products should be labelled here http://bit.ly/2Nc3dz5
Traffic light systems
Many supermarkets use red, amber and green colour-coding to show customers at-a-glance whether products are high or low in fat, salt, sugar etc.
Given the recent rise in vegan and vegetarian consumers, it may surprise you that there is no legal requirement or basis under which food is to be labelled as vegetarian or vegan in the UK.
However, producers and retailers can sign up to schemes voluntarily to show that their food is meat/animal product free. The Vegan Society, for example, has its own marque that can be used by approved suppliers and retailers http://bit.ly/3cG3p2z
‘Healthy’, ‘low fat’ etc
With the UK’s growing obesity issues, it’s helpful for customers to easily make healthier choices when buying pre-packed food. However, companies can expect to be called out – sometimes very publicly – if their products aren’t as ‘healthy’ as they appear to be. A common example is where products are low in fat, and enthusiastically labelled as such, but are also high in sugar.
Halal and Kosher foods are becoming more widely available and can be labelled accordingly if they meet the correct requirements.
While it’s brilliant that UK consumers can make safe and informed choices when buying pre-packed food, food labelling requirements can change quite frequently. A great way to keep up to speed is by subscribing to news and alerts from the Food Standards Agency http://bit.ly/3qIAHCM
*There are some variations in rules and governing bodies between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.