The recent Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum keynote seminar ‘The future of food labelling in the UK – policy developments, implementation challenges and promoting British produce’, 13th November 2018, explored key issues surrounding the future of food labelling post-Brexit. It is likely that the UK will keep most of the EU law for consistency. As highlighted by Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, Shadow Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs:
Karen Lepper, Deputy Director of Food Standards and Consumers at Defra, signposted the current government consultation on amends to food labelling laws.
Have your say on food labelling laws here: https://bit.ly/2TjjdgP
Providing insight from a non-EU country, Krisztina Bende, Head of the Trade Relations Unit, Swiss-Federal Office for Agriculture, revealed that Switzerland have harmonized most of their legislation with EU law. They currently operate a twofold legislation on food labelling – food safety and general consumer information.
Food labelling provides consumers with vital information to enable them to make informed choices about the products that they purchase and consume. Labelling schemes are predominantly voluntary. This post presents some of the key labelling schemes discussed during the seminar in the hope it will promote greater understanding for consumers.
Traffic Light Labelling
Introduced in 2013, traffic light labelling is a front of pack (FoP) nutritional label for the purpose of providing food information to consumers. It is currently a voluntary scheme, but those that opt in must follow the Food Standards Agency guidelines to ensure that the information they provide is compliant with EU Regulation No. 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers.
The label uses colour coding (red, amber, and green) so that consumers can see at a glance whether food has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt. The government advise that consumers aiming to eat a healthy, balanced diet should aim for green and amber labelling, with fewer reds and options that are lower in salt.
Karen Lepper, Deputy Director of Food Standards and Consumers at Defra advised that, in line with chapter 2 of the government Childhood Obesity plan, traffic light labelling for calories is currently under consultation as to whether it would be useful to help families to make better choices.
According to Robert Wells, Head of Food Labelling Policy at Defra, two-thirds of businesses have adopted the voluntary traffic light labelling scheme. He cited research that indicates that consumers that do refer to FoP generally have healthier shopping baskets.
In 2017, France adopted the Nutri-Score label, a similar scheme for providing consumers with nutritional information. The label grades food from A (best nutritional quality) to E (least nutritional quality). It has colour banding ranging from dark green to dark orange, and the grade is an indication of the overall nutritional quality.
Calorie Labelling (for the Out of Home sector)
Karen Lepper advised that the government are currently consulting on how to introduce calorie labelling for restaurants, cafés and takeaways. Some of the larger chains and supermarkets already display calorie information to help their consumers to make healthier choices. The initiative, launched by the Department of Health and Social Care, aims to “make sure that labelling is applied consistently so that families know how much they and their children are eating when out.”
Have your say here: https://bit.ly/2ML3PFQ
Consumers are increasingly concerned about animal welfare. Greater public awareness of production methods, such as battery farming, has led to consumers looking to make more informed choices about the produce they consume. Dr Nick Palmer, Head of Compassion in World Farming UK, noted that egg labelling has changed consumer behaviour, with consumers gradually shifting away from battery eggs.
Sue Davies, Strategic Policy Advisor at Which?, confirmed that Which? research shows that production methods do matter to the UK population. Very high percentages of people are uncomfortable with practices such as growth hormones in beef production, cloning animals for use in food production, GM foods, etc.
There are a number of existing welfare schemes in the UK, such as Red Tractor, RSPCA Assured, and Organic. Andrew Loftus, Appointee of the Livestock Board, NFU, warned that other forms of production labelling might indicate a standard of welfare that doesn’t reflect the reality:
Dr Palmer echoed this, noting that current labels might show animals roaming free that have never “seen a blade of grass”. He emphasized that this is a “loophole that undermines farmers that are making a commitment to animal welfare.”
Dr Palmer advised of a new labelling system for pork that is being introduced by the Ministry of Environment and Food in Denmark. The new logo ’Bedre Dyrevelfærd´ (Better Animal Welfare) contains three hearts, (coloured in from one to three) with a view to giving consumers more choice and enabling them to support animal welfare.
Any system adopted by the UK should be concise, clear and simple. Michael Bell, Executive Director of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association advised that “more complex systems are harder to manage and are more susceptible to fraud.”
Gold Standard Metric for Food – Country of Origin and Welfare Labelling for the UK post-Brexit
Karen Lepper confirmed that, as announced by Defra Secretary Michael Gove at the Oxford Farming Conference 2018, Defra are moving towards the introduction of a new gold standard metric for food. At the conference, Mr Gove stated:
Read his full statement here: https://bit.ly/2OBJAMH
Sue Davies cited online research that reveals that there is a “general assumption that existing food standards are high.” Consumers believe that these standards will stay high after the UK leaves the EU, although people don’t yet understand what will happen.
The introduction of such a system could benefit UK producers in the international market through their affiliation. However, as noted by Dr Nick Palmer, there needs to be a “balance between a level of standard that is affordable to all farmers” to begin with.
In the UK, 5-8% of children and 1-2% of adults are living with a food allergy. Labelling provides vital information to allergy sufferers, but as highlighted by the recent tragic death of teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, labelling in the out of home sector doesn’t go far enough to protect those living with an allergy.
Carla Jones, CEO of Allergy UK, advised that, under current legislation, information can be provided in writing and orally as long as it is accurate, consistent and verifiable, and signage invites consumers to request additional information. She emphasized the need for “more public health campaigns to engage consumers on the issue.”
The Allergen Bureau in Australia have recently launched VITAL 2.0 (Voluntary Incidental Trace Allergy Labelling). The Allergen Bureau website describes the aim of the programme as:
“The VITAL Program was developed to make a single simple standardized precautionary statement available to assist food producers in presenting allergen advice consistently for allergic consumers.”
Ms Jones believes programmes such as the VITAL 2.0 could help to improve standardization of risk management throughout the supply chain. However, it is important that any such scheme in the UK would recognize the UK’s top allergens as it needs to be specific to the needs of the population.
Brand Labelling – Food & Drink Wales
Dr David Lloyd-Thomas, Head of the Food Policy & Strategy Unit in the Welsh Government, provided an engaging presentation of Food & Drink Wales, a Welsh government initiative to establish Wales as a macro-brand internationally. The intention is to create a story of Wales as a food nation, with first rate ingredients and produce. Products are based upon tradition but also seek to be innovative because they are trading in a crowded market.
Their research has shown that consumers value safety, quality, price and a USP (unique selling point), so it is important for producers to find ways to be distinctive. One example provided by Dr Lloyd-Thomas was the white-on-black logo of Rachel’s yoghurt, designed to stand out against a white fridge.
Dr Lloyd-Thomas highlighted that accreditation adoption is a good thing “in terms of consumers being able to recognise quality.” As part of the initiative, Food & Drink Wales actively attend trade fairs internationally to showcase and raise the profile of Welsh produce.