New food labeling and nutritional claims regulations for both food manufacturers and, for the first time, the catering industry come into force in the European Union (EU) on December 13, 2014. The new regulations change existing legislation on food labeling, which is designed to standardize nutrition information on processed or composite foods across the EU. This will also include new legislation for both prepackaged and unpacked foods, including those sold in restaurants and delicatessens. For UK food producers who have grown up with the 1996 food labeling regulations, they will find little change, just the odd tweaks here and there to comply with the new EU 1169/2011 regulations. However, for many involved in the EU food industry and beyond, the new food regulations will have a huge impact on the way they present their wares, as it is something many have never had to consider before. Previously, “small” producers and anyone involved in the sale of unpacked food have been largely exempt from any food labeling regulations. Now, the law makes it clear that “any food intended for supply to the final consumer or to mass caterers shall be accompanied by food information in accordance with this Regulation.”
Suppliers around the world will be wondering what impact this will have, but as with previous regulations, the responsibility lies with the food business operator, and this has been widened to include anyone in the food chain, from raw material purveyor to wholesaler. They will have to ensure that accurate mandatory information is passed on until it reaches the consumer, even if they are outside the EU. To make their food compliant, any supplier stocking the EU and any other non-EU countries that have also adopted these regulations, such as Norway, must provide the relevant information. If they do not supply it, they will be asked for it.
Although food safety is at the core of the new legislation, the general principle of the food law is about telling the truth about your products so that the consumer can make an informed choice about what they choose to eat. The mandatory information required is commonly and obviously referred to as the A-L list. Unpackaged food at the point of retail has only one mandatory requirement on this list: the displaying of allergy information. However, even if the food is eventually sold unpacked, full mandatory information must be supplied from the basic raw materials right through the food chain, so that final retailers can provide sufficient information on the food they sell if required. This means that the retailer or caterer at the final point of sale must ensure that they are provided with documents containing the relevant mandatory information on all the foods they buy from producers and wholesalers.
The other major international change is for those who export or import to a variety of countries. Previously, only the ingredient list needed to be in all relevant languages. The new regulations now require the full A-L list to be in all languages of the EU countries in which the product is sold. As a European initiative to make cross-border trade easier, this one point is proving to be the hardest to resolve, as it involves producing a greater range of labels or increasing label size, and this is proving to be a costly requirement for many companies.
It is also important to clarify the definition of packed and unpacked food before deciding what level of labeling is needed. Unpacked food is obviously open food for sale, such as in a restaurant or deli, but it also includes food packed at the customer’s request or prepacked for direct sale. Therefore, if the food is prepared, packed and sold on the same site, this could be included in the unpacked definition, but if the food is prepacked and delivered to various sites, this then becomes packed and full labeling is required.
If you produce prepacked food sold in that state to the end user, even if it is delivered by a wholesaler, then all mandatory items listed must be on the label. Goods supplied wholesale or to catering where the presentation or packaging format will be altered, such as in bulk purchases, then mandatory items can appear on the prepackaging, on an attached label or on “commercial documents referring to the foods where it can be guaranteed that such documents either accompany the food to which they refer or were sent before or at the same time as delivery.”
Goods sold unpacked direct to customer must display allergy information prior to sale, but if those goods are brought in, then full mandatory information must be made available.
It is no longer acceptable to assume that the responsibility lies with the food producer; the regulations and those enforcing them have made it clear that ignorance is not an excuse or option. This means that others in the food industry have a level of responsibility for someone else’s product, making a documentation trail compulsory to confirm compliance.
From a food safety point of view, the most significant aspect of the new regulations is the enforcement of allergy information. The new regulations standardize allergy information and make it mandatory to all those selling and serving food. Fourteen foods are listed as allergens in Annex II of the regulations; these are the only ones you need to worry about. However, if any of these are in your product, recipe, meal or counter display, they must be clearly displayed. On prepacked food, named allergens must be highlighted within the ingredients list. For wholesale, bulk purchases, allergy information can be supplied either on or with the product or with accompanying documentation. Unpacked food sold directly to the customer, such as off the menu or over the counter, have only one specific mandatory requirement: to display allergy information clearly before the sale is made. In the past, allergy information has been voluntary, which has lead to everything from overlabeling, such as putting “may contain nuts” on everything, to promoting “free from” status. The focus is on what is in the ingredient list; it does not include cross-contamination issues such as “may contain,” and the often used “contains” is being withdrawn. For unpacked food, allergy information can be supplied on the menu, on chalkboards, tickets or provided verbally by an appropriate member of staff as well as in other formats made available to the consumer. It must be clear and conspicuous, not hidden away, easily visible and legible. It is no longer enough to say you do not know whether or not a food contains an allergen, nor is it enough to say that all your foods may contain allergens.
The other key safety aspect of the new regulations is accountability. It must be clear where the food has come from and what has happened to it along the way. For good quality producers, this is a good thing, as cheap, mass-produced food now must be very specific about how it describes itself, not just in words, but pictorially. The mandatory requirement of a legal name means that food producers have an obligation to provide the most accurate description of their product. For example, if you made pork sausages that had a lower meat content to rusk, the legal name would be “a rusk sausage with pork.” If your product contains an artificial flavoring rather than the real thing, you will have to state just that, so we will see more “cheesecakes with strawberry flavoring” on the shelves. Country of origin is also strongly enforced, so even if it is packaged or processed elsewhere, you will still need to be clear about where it came from. For example, you may cure bacon in the UK, but you will also have to clearly state if the meat came from another country. There are also requirements to say what processing and storage processes has occurred, for example “defrosted.” Misrepresentation also applies to pictorial images, so if it is made in a massive environmentally unfriendly factory, then putting cute little rural scenes on the label may not be acceptable.
If you are new to regulation 1169/2011, then you may also be unaware of the current health and nutritional claims regulations (EFSA 1924/2006) that run alongside the new labeling regulations and have been fully enforceable since the end of 2012. These regulations control the use of nutritional and health terms, including very simple, well-used words and phrases.
In the UK, your local trading standards officer is the main enforcer, but they are concerned about a last-minute rush as their numbers are limited. Many trading standards offices are now also charging for their services per hour or getting companies to sign up for ongoing (and costly) agreements. As with most legal documents, the regulations are much harder to read than the actions you need to take, so a nutrition regulation advisor can help you compile a file of evidence and check lists to enable your company to comply with the changes ahead.
Liz Tucker is a nutrition and health consultant. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.