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Horsemeat scandal: Food labelling and what’s changing

Author : Chris Shaw

25 March 2013

The food industry has been presented with, arguably, its biggest challenge to food labelling rules in the last 20 years. Andrew Jackson, a partner on the manufacturing team at law firm Thomas Eggar talks to Chris Shaw.

The recent introduction of the new food labelling rules in the form of EU Regulation 1169/2011 on the Provision of Food Information to Consumers means that from 13 December 2014, companies must comply with mandatory food labelling guidelines and can no longer simply apply their own voluntary food labelling.

So what’s changing? 

Food labelling is an important means of providing vital information to consumers which, at present, has to include product name, ingredients, manufacturer's name, any special storage conditions, a date mark and identifying allergens. In addition, food manufacturer/retailers can, if they wish, provide supplemental information at the point of sale or on their website so long as it is accurate and not misleading.

The Food Information Regulation is intended to simplify current legislation with a single set of regulations to make it easier for consumers to understand and to allow for more effective implementation. In addition, a number of additional new requirements have been introduced by the new Regulation including:

  • Mandatory labelling obligations 
  • Minimum font size for all mandatory text 
  • Mandatory nutrition declaration 
  • A clearer indication of allergens 
  • Country of origin labelling to fresh meat of pork, lamb and poultry 
Inevitably, the effect of these mandatory guidelines for food manufacturers (and retailers) will be the serious cost implications of the necessary redesign of current food labels. The changes will require new practices for food manufacturers which will involve increased costs, possibly running into millions of pounds to ensure that packaging is compliant with the new legislation. The changes will also mean increased costs of staff training to ensure that they are educated and aware of the new requirements.

This will have a disproportionate effect on smaller food companies rather than the larger companies (many of whom already have some type of food nutrition labelling in place that will require adapting of labels rather than wholesale change).

The lead-in times for compliance with the general provisions from 13 December 2014 and the nutrition declaration provisions from 13 December 2016, allow businesses to put in place relevant transitional provisions but ultimately the increased costs of complying with these new requirements will be passed on to consumers. 

The changes have been met with a mixed reaction with some commentators claiming that the Regulation is ‘bad news for the whole food manufacturing industry’ by increasing costs without providing any tangible food safety benefit for consumers. Others claim that the FIR, by introducing country of origin labelling to cover certain meats which closes a loophole in the current legislation allowing producers to claim that the meat is British even if has only been processed in the UK, is to be welcomed. 

The recent horsemeat contamination that has embroiled a number of national retailers and UK food producers, as well as the discovery of pork DNA in ‘halal meat products’ meant for English and Irish jails, brings the whole issue neatly into focus, with the emphasis firmly placed on all stakeholders to create a transparent labelling regime that gives consumers greater confidence in what they are eating. 

However, whether the changes have the desired effect of increasing public awareness and allowing customers to make more informed choices as to what they eat or minimising incidents such as the aforementioned contamination sagas, remains to be seen.


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