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Food labelling: Why it’s important for food safety and consumer protection

Being one of the last key points in the food supply chain, it is important for food producer and retailers such as supermarkets and grocery stores to ensure food safety is met to a high standard and pests are proactively prevented to protect consumers from potential health risks.

Food producers and retailers have a duty not simply to ensure food is safe but also to provide information to consumers about foods that is clear, accurate and based on scientific evidence. The legislation prohibits the use of information and claims about food that is misleading. This also ensures fair competition between businesses.

Food labelling for consumer protection

Food labelling is the prime means of informing the consumer about the food they are purchasing. Legislation on food labelling guides producers and retailers and gives consumers rights to basic information, such as ingredients, nutrition, origin and safety information — including storage life, handling, preparation instructions and allergens.

The type of information, design of labels (e.g. size, position and layout of important information) and the wording used are controlled by legislation. Both the EU and the US specify what wording can be used to make claims about food (e.g. “low fat”, “high fat”). The EU has a Public Register of Nutrition and Health Claims that lists what is permitted and forbidden.

Labelling confusion

The amount of information on food supplied to consumers is increasing, due to both legislation and demand from consumers. Scientific research has increased our knowledge about food production, safety, and what is healthy. Providing more information on food labels helps the consumer make choices relating to ingredients, diet, health, quality, taste, traceability, safety, sustainability and even ethics of food production.

The wide range of information can lead to information overload, however. The number of health claims, different quality labels, nutrition facts, advice and marketing information, and in some cases misleading and contradictory information, can overwhelm many people and cause confusion even for more educated people. There is a need for a balance between informing shoppers and preventing them from making appropriate choices.

Food fraud

Food fraud directly affects the consumer through the supply of substandard, fake or dangerous products and leading to over payment for the product purchased. Food fraud, according to the European Parliament in a 2013 report is “a growing trend reflecting a structural weakness within the food chain”. The risk of fraud is also increasing because of the “complexity and cross-border character of the food chain”.

Contributing factors include the economic crisis, budget cuts for control agencies and pressure from the retail sector and others to produce food ever more cheaply. In Europe, there is no clear definition or measures in law to control food fraud other than the general food safety legislation which states that consumers should not be misled about products. However, in the US, the law is clearer and provides for fines and up to life imprisonment. The Federal Anti-Tampering Act makes it a federal crime to tamper with or taint a consumer product.

Types of food fraud include:

  • replacing key ingredients with cheaper alternatives;
  • wrongly labelling the animal species used in a meat product;
  • incorrectly labelling the weight;
  • selling ordinary foods as organic;
  • unfairly using origin or animal welfare quality logos;
  • labelling aquaculture fish as wild-caught;
  • counterfeiting; and
  • marketing food past its use-by date.

Top 10 products commonly targeted for food fraud

  • olive oil;
  • fish;
  • organic foods;
  • milk;
  • grains;
  • honey and maple syrup;
  • coffee and tea;
  • spices, eg saffron and chilli powder;
  • wine; and
  • some types of fruit juice.

Recent cases in Europe have included marketing of ordinary flour as organic flour, battery cage eggs as organic eggs, road salt as food salt, the widely reported selling of horse meat as beef and the use of methanol-contaminated alcohol in spirits.

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7 October 2019