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Food labelling regulation challenges and opportunities

07 May 2017

It is important to keep up to date with changing food labelling requirements to ensure continuing compliance, says Klaudyna Terlicka

Maintaining an awareness of current food labelling legislation, understanding its commercial implications and remaining alert to changes is increasingly becoming a challenge. There is no ‘one size fits all’ label, although progress has been made to harmonise legislation and enforcement. 

Many food-related matters are no longer under national jurisdiction, but rather regulated at the level of the European Union, Eurasian Economic Union, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) or Codex Alimentarius. National disparities can still, however, be seen and creation of one label that complies with every market is not possible. 

One of the most pressing issues for the food industry today is nutrition declaration, which became mandatory in many jurisdictions to bring food labels up to date with the dietary concerns and health requirements of today’s consumer.

At the EU level, nutrition declaration became mandatory for all products (with few exemptions) on 13th December 2016. Legislation requires declaration of energy value and the amounts of fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt. Alcoholic beverages are exempted. However, the European Commission encouraged industry to publish a self-regulatory proposal within a year of publication of its report (the report was published on 13 March 2017). In the absence of EU harmonised legislation, Member States are allowed to maintain or adopt national measures. The amount of sugar is required to be stated on the labels of certain wine products in Austria. Romania and Ireland have notified draft national legislation relating to nutrition declaration for alcoholic beverages. 

A different look
In one of the largest changes to food labelling legislation in the USA for decades, the Nutrition Facts Panel on food packages will have a different look from the middle of 2018 according to a final rule published by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that became law from July 2016. This means that over 800,000 food labels will need to be changed in the coming months. Among other changes, for the first time added sugars are required to be declared. Current data indicates that, if 10% of total daily calories or more are derived from added sugar, it is difficult to meet nutrient needs while staying within calorie limits.

Much like the United States, Canada has made significant changes to its Nutrition Facts Table to reflect the needs and consumption patterns of Canadians. Additionally, the format for the ingredient declaration has become much more standardised, with various amends introduced. For example, all sugars-based ingredients (mono- or disaccharides or combinations thereof) must be declared as if they were a compound food under the heading ‘sugars’. 

In Japan, nutrition labelling becomes mandatory from 2020 with energy, protein, fat, carbohydrates and salt equivalent being compulsory indications.  

The front of pack nutrition declaration remains voluntary in the EU; however, if provided, it must follow the legislative requirements (the energy value, or the energy value and the amounts of fat, saturates, sugars, and salt may be repeated; information must be legible and meet minimum font size requirements). The graphical representation is not specified under EU law and various additional forms of expression have been introduced in different countries, for example the ‘hybrid’ traffic light system in the UK. 

In France, Decree No. 2016-980 of 19 July 2016 has been published concerning additional nutrition information on foods and four different front of pack schemes were tested in 60 retailers from September to December 2016. The successful form will be selected and an application act is expected to be published in the first half of 2017. In Denmark Food Administration requires food businesses to submit evidence that the scheme has been prepared on sufficient scientific basis taking into consideration nutritional requirements. Foods with other forms of expression can be exported to Denmark; however, Danish companies must notify the authority and submit the evidence. There is also a joint initiative by six major food companies operating in the EU to develop a new additional form of expression for nutrition information, similar to the UK traffic lights, but using a portion as the basis. The European Commission should publish a report on the use of different forms of expression and presentation and their effect on the internal market by 13 December 2017. A conclusion is expected on whether further harmonisation would address the issue. 

Voluntary activity equivalent labelling was suggested by the Royal Society of Public Health in the UK last year. A pictorial representation on activity required to expend consumed energy provides a simple way of relating to energy provision from a food or drink.

Additional forms of expression are used at international level, for example the voluntary green keyhole logo in Scandinavian markets, the health start rating in Australia and mandatory warning statements in Chile in the shape of a black STOP sign for products high in calories, saturated fat, refined sugars or sodium.

Country of origin
Another pressing issue is country of origin declaration, particularly at EU level. Origin labelling of foreign primary ingredients is the outstanding mandatory requirement of the Food Information to Consumers (FIC) Regulation. There has been a proposal for the implementing act, which may be finally published in 2017. This is not likely to apply until April 2019. 

Various national schemes relating to origin declaration for milk in milk products are currently being established. French Decree 2016-1137 of 19 August 2016 set up origin declaration requirements for milk, milk used in certain dairy products and meat used as an ingredient. It does not apply to products manufactured or marketed in other Member States or in a third country. France regards it as a ‘pilot project’ (it runs from 1 January 2017 to 31 December 2018) and will report on its impact on the single market. Similarly to French legislation, Italy has set up national provisions relating to milk origin information on a range of prepacked dairy products. The scheme starts on 1 April 2017 and will run for two years. Similar initiatives are in the pipeline in other EU Member States, including Finland, Greece, Lithuania, Portugal and Romania. Diversification of rules amongst Member States might increase the complexity of the uniform labelling approach.  

In Australia the Country of Origin Food Labelling Standard commenced on 1 July 2016 with two year transition period. Imported and non-priority Australian foods (seasonings, confectionery, biscuits and snack food, bottled water, soft drinks and sports drinks, tea and coffee, alcoholic beverages) require a simple country of origin statement. ‘Priority foods’ – if claimed to be grown, produced or made in Australia, must display a kangaroo and bar chart.

Discussions are ongoing at the EU level to establish a harmonised approach to lactose-free and low lactose claims and allergen cross contamination statements (for example ‘may contain...’), and agree on guidance and common opinion for a number of issues. 

Another important subject is the declaration of the term ‘probiotic’, which is considered a non-permitted health claim by the majority of EU Member States. None of the probiotic claims have received a positive opinion from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and none have been authorised. Considerations are being given to whether a probiotic claim can be classified as a voluntary statement under FIC Regulation and we wait to see if any changes emerge in 2017.

Maintaining awareness of current and upcoming labelling requirements remains a challenge. Understanding national peculiarities and awareness of upcoming legislative changes, trends and consumer demands are the key to producing compliant labels with a commercial focus. 

Klaudyna Terlicka is head of regulatory affairs at Campden BRI.

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