ANALYSIS - The UK’s vote to leave the European Union could allow some flexibility in the way that new European food labelling regulations are implemented.
The European Commission’s mandatory Food Information for Consumers regulations are due to be fully implemented in December this year.
The regulations call for allergen and nutrition information to be displayed as well as country of origin information for pig, sheep, goat and poultry meat. Country of origin information already has to be displayed for beef.
The new regulations also cover dates for frozen products, the constitution of minced meat products and also the amount of water added to products.
Speaking at a seminar in London hosted by the Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum on Food Labelling Regulation – implementation, impact and the future for UK policy, David Pickering, trading standards manager from Buckinghamshire and Surrey Trading Standards Service said that “Brexit offers an opportunity to look at what we are putting on food labels”.
“Exit from the EU does create opportunities,” he said.
Mr Pickering said that the complication in implementing the new regulations comes with the extension of the rules to the food service sector.
Mick Sloyan, the strategy director at AHDB Pork called for an extension of the country of origin labelling regulations for processed meats and meat products.
And he added that if a product contains meat from several countries, those countries should be named on the label.
He told the seminar that voluntary codes do not work and added that the value of country of origin labelling was for the consumers.
He said the “horsegate” scandal where beef products were contaminated with horse meat came about because of the complexity of the supply chain and he added that knowing the source of ingredients becomes a matter of trust for consumers.
Mr Sloyan added that people take an interest in where their food comes from and they need to be informed.
Matthew Sharman, head of food science at Fera told the seminar that the number of cases of products being contaminated, such as in the horse meat scandal, has been reduced by improved supply chain management and testing.
However, he said that testing cannot cover all potential incidents and there needs to be trust traceability and transparency alongside testing and the correct technology to support the tests.
“We need the right testing and tools to assure against food fraud,” he said.
The seminar heard that many consumers are confused by the information that is being displayed on food labels.
Nicky Strong from law firm Bond Dickinson and Caroline Benjamin the director of the Food Allergy Training Consultancy said that the current food labels were not clear.
Ms Strong said that the new traffic light system of labelling gives information but it is not clear to consumers over facts about measurements and portion sizes.
Ms Benjamin said that there is also confusion and discrepancies over the way that information over allergen, ingredients and nutrition is provided in catering establishments, and she called for more training to ensure accurate information is provided.
Dr Georgian Cairns, former research fellow at the University of Stirling said that a lot of the discussion around food labelling is about informing the consumer.
“The supplier knows a lot of the nutritional information, but the consumer does not,” she said.
She added that it requires a lot of trust on the part of the consumer over issues such as provenance and country of origin.
“One of the benefits of food labelling is that it narrows the gap by building trust.”
Dr Cairns told the seminar that certain labels can bolster the reputation of companies, with marks such as the Marine Stewardship Council certification bringing confidence to consumers over the provenance of the products they are buying.
Prof Monique Raats, director of food, consumer behaviour and health research at the University of Surrey said that while the UK takes the lead in food labelling in the EU, there is a variation in food labels across Europe.
“There isn’t a level playing field in the sort of information consumers are being given across Europe,” she said.
She said countries vary in the nutrition information being given, some countries also include health logos to promote a positive perception of food and there are differences in the claims that are made on labels.
However, Bryonie Hollaert, nutritionist with Wm Morrison Supermarkets warned against sweeping changes to labelling regulations as she said that it can cost £300 or more to change a label for a single product.
She added that while Morrison’s had stared to implement the traffic light system of labelling in 2013, many consumers were still confused about the content of foods and processed products, where certain sugars and fats naturally occur in the raw materials and are not added.
“If we are being asked to make labelling changes, can we make them evidence based,” she said.