EU ministers have agreed new rules for food labelling that would require the listing of all ingredients. Once merely advertisements for their contents, food labels are becoming sophisticated sources of information; this process is calling their basic function into question. As they struggle to shape food labelling for the future, manufacturers, activists and regulators must all take care to keep the needs of ordinary consumers at the centre of their thinking.

Under new legislation agreed in principle by the EU, manufacturers will be required to list all sub-ingredients of compound ingredients in foods. Authorities are concerned that with food allergies on the rise current labelling is not sufficiently detailed. The new labels could be on shelves by 2005.

Such a move would simply be the latest in a long line that has changed the basic role of food labelling. Food labels are now likely to be packed with information, much of which is either required or governed by law. Consumer activists have driven the changes, which have often been resisted by manufacturers, making food labels something of battleground.

Manufacturers are acutely aware that labels help to define their products for customers. The ideal of the so-called clean label seeks to remove all ingredients that consumers find unappealing from a product, such as artificial sounding ingredients. A recent US advertising campaign for Breyers ice cream contrasted the simple, natural sounding ingredients of one ice cream with the longer list of less appealing ingredients in a fictitious rival.

The EU decision comes on the heels of similar recommendations from the UK's Food Standards Agency. A study published in July found that 56% of typical food products were labelled that they may contain nuts, allergies to which are rare but often serious. Despite the warnings, inconsistencies in the labelling actually left consumers worryingly confused.

The danger is that consumers will get left behind amid the good intentions as activists and regulators rush to require more detailed labelling. Despite manufacturers' protests over the expense of more detailed labelling, consumers do appear to want more information about their food. As the role of labelling continues to change, it is vital that manufacturers accept consumers' right to know and concentrate on designing clear and informative labels.

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