The new Food Standards Agency is to press for far reaching changes in European food labelling rules to provide clearer information for consumers, tighter controls on claims about GM ingredients and better information for people with allergies.

The Agency is also planning to work with industry on voluntary action to make food labels easier to understand and develop a new national code of guidance on the promotion of foods to children.

The action plan, agreed by the Food Standards Agency Board at its meeting in Belfast today, follows nine months of consultation and consumer research.

The Agency is calling for the compulsory EU listing of all ingredients in food that could cause allergic reactions, and wants to extend the listing to include alcoholic drinks.

To help end consumer confusion caused by misleading health claims such as low-fat, fat-free, and 80% fat-free, the Agency will be pressing for legally binding EU standards on nutrition claims and clear nutrition labelling on all foods.

There is considerable concern that the promotion to children of foods that are high in fat/sugar/salt are contributing to childhood obesity and long-term health problems. The Agency plans to work with consumers and industry to develop and implement a new code of practice on the promotion of foods to children.

Country of origin is important for many consumers, particularly when they are choosing meat and dairy products. The Agency is to press for clear EU rules on the use of terms like ‘produce of’ and extend the rules to a wider range of foods.

Food Standards Agency Deputy Chair, Suzi Leather, said:

“Consumers have said that too many labels are confusing, misleading or simply do not provide enough information for them to make sensible choices on what is best for their health.

“We know that up to 8% of infants and young children suffer from adverse reactions to particular foods and ingredients and we want to put in place measures which help protect them.

“This is a balanced programme that seeks European wide legal safeguards and voluntary action by the food industry that responds to consumer needs.”

Recent surveys by the Agency have found that GM remains an important issue for consumers with nearly a third of shoppers saying that they wanted to know if there are GM ingredients when buying food.

The Agency wants to extend EU rules to require the labelling of GM animal feed and clearer regulations on the use of GM free labelling.

Nine out of ten consumers agreed that it was important to know the country of origin of food, 79% said meat was the most important food that should have a country of origin label. Recent examples of confusing labelling include bacon made from imported pigmeat that was labelled as British or produced in the UK.

The food industry is called upon to adopt clear and transparent criteria for the use of potentially misleading terms like fresh, pure, traditional, and country-style. Additional voluntary action is called for to reduce unnecessary warnings, such as may contain nut traces, to extend consumer choice.

The Agency is proposing the abolition of the rule that exempts ingredients from listings if they are part of a compound ingredient that makes up less than 25% of the food.