Consumers are being misled by meaningless descriptions like country style and the sloppy use of terms such as fresh, traditional and homemade on some food labels, according to a report published today by an advisory committee to the Food Standards Agency.

The report, a result of a two year study by the Food Advisory Committee, slams some members of the food industry for misusing terms and says tighter enforcement is needed. The committee studied the use of the terms: fresh; natural; pure; traditional; original; authentic; and home-made/farmhouse.

The Food Standards Agency will use the report to start consultation next week on new standards to industry that will help protect consumers and provide for more effective enforcement. The standards will:

  • provide for more effective enforcement
  • provide a level playing field for industry
  • make plain to consumers what they should expect

The Agency plans to follow up the publication of the proposed standards with surveys and regular spot-checks.

The reports says that the basic requirements under the Food Safety Act 1990, the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 and the Food Labelling Regulations 1996 that outlaw misleading labels are not being strictly observed.

Food Standards Agency deputy chair, Suzi Leather, said:

" This is an important study which takes forward the rights of consumers and doesn't pull any punches. I would like to pay tribute to the Food Advisory Committee members who have produced this report.

" People have a basic right to clear and meaningful labels so that they know what they are really buying - this goes to the very heart of consumer choice.

Terms such as fresh, pure or authentic can be misused and, to quote the report, 'labellers have a tendency to be economical with the truth.'

" This is a timely review of labelling in what is a fast-changing market. The Agency will use this report to set clear standards that protect consumers and honest traders."

The report sets out a number of detailed recommendations. The Food Standards Agency will use these as the basis for advice to industry and enforcement authorities on when these terms should and should not be used.

The report also considered the use of pictures on food labels and advertising and recommends that they should be governed by the same guidance as terms and phrases.

And the Report says there is no place in food labelling for the term country style and the term farmhouse should be used sparingly.

The Committee's report followed consumer research which found that about 75 percent of consumers find terms such as fresh, natural and pure misleading.

  • Four out of ten (43%) thought 'fresh' referred to the age of the food. More than two in ten (22%) thought fresh food should not be treated, processed, tinned etc. More than one in ten (12%) said that to be fresh it should not have been frozen. One in ten thought that fresh food should be produced or picked that day.

  • Nearly five out of ten (47%) expected natural food to be free of additives (including preservatives, colourings or artificial man-made ingredients). Nearly two out of ten (18%) said natural food should have nothing added/no added ingredients. More than one in ten (12%) said it should be unadulterated, in its natural state, or not tampered with.
  • More than three out of ten people (35%) expected pure food to have nothing added or no extras, nothing mixed with the product/or nothing artificial; Nearly three out of ten people expected pure food to have no additives/or no e-numbers.

Notes to editors:

  1. An Executive Summary of the Food Advisory Committee's Report is attached. Copies of the Report are available from The Food Standards Agency, telephone 0845 606 0667, fax: 0208 867 3225 or e-mail foodstandards@eclogistics.co.uk

  1. The Food Advisory Committee's terms of reference are: "To advise the Board of the Food Standards Agency on any food safety and standards issues and to assist with the development of the Agency's strategy and future work programme as the Board may require."

  1. The Food Standards Agency's Board has an 18-point action plan to improve food labelling. Information about this plan, and the Board's views can be found on our website: www.foodstandards.gov.uk

  1. A summary of the consumer research can be found in Food Safety Information Bulletin No118 on the FSA website.