Food labelling is well recognised and
established as the direct interface between the manufacturer and the consumer. Yet it
continues to be one of the most high-profile and, in some cases, controversial aspects of
food legislation. But labelling is never static; demands for more and different labelling
information continue to grow, with a number of issues being focused on at this time.
The current debate on food labelling is
primarily concerned with two aspects; one involves the provision of information to enable
consumers to make an informed choice about product ‘quality’; the second concerns
information that could be relevant from a food ‘safety’ point of view.
Throughout the EU Member States, one of the
issues foremost in manufacturers’ minds at this time is compliance with the so-called
‘QUID’ rules (Quantitative Ingredient Declaration), as the final date for compliance is 14
QUID is intended to give consumers a more
complete picture of the nature of the product they are buying. The new provisions
essentially require that the quantity of the characterising ingredient of a food be
declared as a percentage on the label, in order that consumers can make an informed choice
between similar products.
With the trend in recent years away from
restrictive standards of composition, it is felt that provision of information of this
type should be sufficient to maintain product quality, as such information will strongly
affect consumer choice.
Like many regulatory issues, the provisions
will be open to interpretation and may lead to subtle differences between national laws of
the current 15 Member States. For example, there are exemptions to the need for QUID
declarations; one of these is where an ingredient is used in small quantities for the
purposes of flavouring. The UK has suggested approximately 2% as the recommended limit
applicable here; European guidance leaves it up to the individual Member States to set a
level. It will be interesting to see whether other countries introduce a quantitative
level or rely on subjective opinion in enforcement.
A further area of interest concerns the use
of claims. In the absence of common EC legislation on claims, Member States vary in the
scope of their legislation or guidelines in this respect. One issue of concern is health
claims, particularly with the continuing interest in so-called ‘functional foods’ and
foods that can, potentially, provide a physiological benefit.
The interest in potential health benefits
that specific foods and food components can bring continues to grow. The regulatory
framework prohibits the use of medicinal claims, i.e. those that suggest that a food can
treat, cure or prevent human disease. Such claims can be implied by the format and
presentation of the packaging used, and more than one product has fallen foul of
enforcement authorities. However, Leatherhead has assisted several companies launch
products with health claims onto the market, such as Benecol, with its claim to help
actually reduce cholesterol as part of a healthy diet.
In the absence of any European guidance,
there has been unprecedented co-operation between enforcement, industry and consumer
representation in countries such as Sweden, the Netherlands and the UK to establish some
clarification and guidance into an area where the regulatory framework is deemed to be
The UK has seen the final text of the Joint
Health Claims Initiative Code of Practice on Health Claims in Foods, which aims to add
flexibility to the existing system by the classification of health claims as
‘generic’ and ‘innovative’. The Code of Practice allows for the making
of acceptable health claims, whether direct, indirect or implied, in food labelling,
advertising or promotion. The Code is to be supported by a Code Administration Body
composed of a Council (to monitor Code operation) and a Secretariat (to administer the
Code); Leatherhead Food RA has been selected to host the Secretariat.
Successful operation of the Code should
lead to increasing consumer confidence in the role of health claims and enable
manufacturers who work with the Code to be innovative with their products, yet able to
express more directly potential benefits of foods once scientific validity had been
established. In the longer term, there is no reason why the Code should not influence a
future European model.
By way of contrast, a legal framework for
health claims is already in existence in the USA, and the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) can authorise certain claims under specified conditions.
Other forms of claim based on the nutrient
content of foods are also popular with manufacturers; many consumers use such claims in
selecting their products. The majority of nutrition claims are not controlled by specific
legislation in the UK but rather by recommendations of the Food Advisory Committee (FAC).
Changes have recently been made to the FAC guidance following consultation carried out as
a direct result of developments at Codex Alimentarius level. Of most interest here is the
reduction of the maximum limit for a ‘low-fat claim’ to maximum 3 g/100 g solid
food, or 3 g/100 ml liquids. However, the maximum limit calculated on a per serving basis
has been removed. Recently, the number of ‘% fat-free claims’ seen on the market
has been increasing; the FAC has advised that % fat-free claims (e.g. ‘98%
fat-free’) should no longer be used as they could be misunderstood.
Where nutrition claims are used in food
labelling, prescribed nutrition labelling is triggered in order to give the consumer a
clear picture as to the overall composition of the food. Although nutrition labelling is
now found on a wide range of food products (in contrast to the current situation in the
United States, nutrition labelling is voluntary unless triggered by the use of a nutrition
claim), it has been recognised that much of the information is technical and complex and
not readily understood by consumers. The EC Directive controlling the presentation of
nutrition information, 90/496/EEC, is under review with the intention of assessing just
how practicable to consumers the existing rules are.
Food Safety Issues
From a food safety point of view, the key
issues at this time concern potential labelling of recognised food allergens and the
controversy surrounding the use of genetically modified ingredients.
It is now generally recognised that the
documented increase in recorded sensitivity reactions to foods must trigger changes to the
current labelling laws. Essentially, labelling is seen as the answer, but exactly how
should the appropriate labelling be given? It is believed that if foods are labelled in
such a way as to inform the consumer that potentially allergenic or hypersensitive
ingredients are present in a particular food, this may lessen the risk to affected
What about these ingredients being present
at trace levels resulting from contamination? In the UK voluntary labelling can often be
seen on products, for example ‘may contain X’, ‘may contain traces of X’, ‘not suitable
for X allergy sufferers’, where X is the name of the allergen in question.
Part of the EC ‘QUID’ Directive (97/4/EC)
requires the source of modified starch to be declared in an ingredients list when gluten
could be present. The first steps towards more specific labelling have therefore been
The main problem area with the European
food labelling rules is the compound ingredient provision, where component ingredients
present in small amounts need not be declared if the compound ingredient is present at
less than 25%, as small amounts of allergens can be enough to cause a serious health
problem. One option is to remove the 25% exemption, which would lead to longer, more
complicated ingredients lists and add to already considerable pressures on label space;
another is to declare the presence of any known allergens, whatever their quantity.
Potential legislation in this arena is
being discussed both at EC and Codex level. This does not solve the problem of potential
contamination by allergens, but that is a separate issue from labelling and one where Good
Manufacturing Practices play a key role.
Over the last few years, the profile of
genetic modification has been raised significantly, particularly in relation to the
genetic manipulation of foods and food ingredients. Consumer concerns have surfaced not
only on food safety issues, but also in relation to environmental protection, despite
existing controls, and on ethical issues such as the transfer of genes between species.
The media and various public interest
groups have focused on some of the more newsworthy issues – sometimes the reporting has
been decidedly scaremongering in nature (newspaper articles with headlines referring to
‘Frankenstein Foods’). Although consumer groups throughout the European Union
have been vociferous in their objections to the use of genetic modification in food
production, similar concerns have been voiced by consumers around the world, in countries
such as the United States of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Consumer concerns have been reflected in
demands for the labelling of GM ingredients, so that consumers can make an informed choice
over the foods they buy. Manufacturers within the European Union have reacted to the legal
requirement to label GM foods, particularly GM soya and maize, by sourcing non-genetically
modified soya or maize (using so-called ‘identity-preserved’ raw materials), or
they have reformulated their products to exclude the use of soya or maize or their
derivatives. In the absence of legal thresholds for the detection of foreign DNA or
protein, the alternative is to label their products as genetically modified, which is
regarded by many as a less than desirable option.
At the moment there are no definitions laid
down yet at EC level for ‘GM-free’ or ‘identity preserved’ and a number of manufacturers
have taken to such claims for marketing purposes. Vigorous traceability systems are
required to substantiate these claims; however, Austria and Germany have produced
unilateral definitions and these may be taken into consideration during the deliberations
at the Commission.
The next chapter of the GM story is about
to be written in the EC, with a draft working document on the labelling of additives
derived from GM sources having been circulated. Under current legislation on the labelling
of GM soya and maize, additives are exempt from such declaration. The story will not be
complete until agreement is reached on a negative list of ingredients that will be
exempted from GM labelling, a de minimis threshold and criteria established for GM free
labelling. Progress has been held up to a certain extent by political problems within the
Commission; however, proposals are expected once the new Commission is in place and its
agreement has been given.
By contrast, the Australia New Zealand Food
Standards Council (ANZFSC) has recently agreed to extend the labelling of all food
produced using gene technology. The ANZFSC is now looking to amend the Food Standards Code
accordingly. The precise form of wording for labelling of GM foods has not yet been agreed
and consideration is also being given to the ‘may contain’ scenario – this labelling
declaration is simply not available to an European food manufacturer . The Canadian
authorities also have a relatively low opinion of the ‘may contain’ approach, whereas the
US is altogether less demanding in its GM labelling requirements.
There are clearly a number of different
approaches to GM labelling currently being adopted across the world and this may pose
practical difficulties, or even be a potential trade barrier, to food manufacturers
wishing to export.
In line with the continued emphasis on the
availability to consumers of labelling information in order that they make an informed
choice, labelling issues will continue to be at the forefront of technical legislative
developments. The manufacturer is, therefore, faced with continuing changes to the
labelling that is required for his products, from modified-atmosphere packaged foods to GM
The future will undoubtedly bring further
change in response to technological advances and further consumer concerns. Manufacturers
need not only to be aware of what they must label now, but also to prepare for impending
Peter Wight, Deputy Manager,
Legislation Unit, Leatherhead Food RA
Handbook On Labelling Of
Genetically Modified Foods, Ingredients And Additives
This Handbook provides an invaluable and
authoritative source of reference information on regulatory issues relating to the
labelling of GM foods. The new publication is uniquely designed to provide practical
guidance through the legal ‘maze’ of GM legislation from across the world.
For the major countries worldwide, this
informative handbook is intended to address the following issues:
- Which countries require the labelling of
foods produced using genetic modification
- The legislative background to GM labelling
- GM labelling statements
- The labelling of GM additives and processing
The Handbook also includes an overview of
the development of GM legislation in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as certain
African countries. ‘GM-free’ labelling requirements and information on recent CODEX
meetings is also discussed.
This consolidated reference document
provides invaluable information on worldwide regulatory issues and correct labelling
procedure for GM products.
Handbook on Labelling of Genetically
Modified Foods, Ingredients and Additives is priced at £70 for Members of Leatherhead and
£90 for Non-Members. For further information, contact the Publications Unit at
Leatherhead Food RA on +44 (0)1372 376761 or via e-mail at email@example.com
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