Food labelling schemes a recipe for confusion, claims lawyer

By Anthony Fletcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags European union

Voluntary food labelling schemes could lead to greater confusion
among consumers at a time when the EU is debating how best to
harmonise regulations across the bloc, argues an industry lawyer.

"The food industry is not against regulations - they present an opportunity to show what product is healthiest and provide information,"​ Jessica Burt, a solicitor at CMS Cameron McKenna's SHEP (Safety, Health Environment and Products) team told FoodNavigator.

"But this is going to happen at a European level anyway, without Member States piling in with voluntary measures."

Burt believes that the UK's FSA (Food Standards Agency) and the EU are moving along parallel lines. The FSA in effect is doing its own thing while European regulations are slowly trundled through.

This, says Burt, will cause inevitable conflict at some point, leading to confusion to both industry and consumers. In addition, she argues that much of the current focus on the food industry - with respect to obesity - focuses on just one causal factor.

"Food is about the most pertinent issue in the media at the moment,"​ she said.

"It's an easy thing for politicians to use in order to be seen to be doing something - rather than tackling the underlying issues that surround obesity."

Indeed, one thing that is often repeated is that the food industry is not like other industries. As Burt points out, everyone needs food, and she argues that it is inaccurate to draw analogies between the food and tobacco industries.

"The phrase there is no such thing as bad food is almost taken for granted, but it is true,"​ she said.

Burt therefore believes that the FSA is wrong in trying to push through one-size fits all criteria, when consumers do not come in one-size fits all. The FSA strongly favours what is called a traffic light labelling system, colour-coded with red, yellow and green.

"At-a-glance labelling that enables the consumer to understand everything is impossible,"​ she said. "What if you are diabetic, a child, X, Y, Z ... everyone is different.

"There is a real risk of dumbing down labelling with this traffic light proposal."

In addition, any proposal from the FSA will be voluntary. In Europe, the Health and Nutritional Claims regulations will have the force of law, while at the same time member states such as the UK are attempting to institute voluntary measures.

"The question is, how will these voluntary schemes apply within a free European market,"​ said Burt. "How will all this nutritional criteria fit in once Europe pushes through new regulations?"

All this, says Burt, is a symptom of too much focus being given to risk, and not enough given to prevention. Burt argues that a positive step would be to establish labelling regulations that dictate the absolute maximum safe trace levels of certain possible contaminants.

"The cost to industry and to consumers of all these product recalls is too high,"​ she said. "What we really need is an effective risk assessment process put in place. People are just far too concentrated on the hazard, and not the likelihood of the risk arising."

Otherwise, Burt warns, we are in danger of getting into the realm of the absurd, with warning labels on everything.

Burt's point, it seems, is that food labelling should take into account the needs of the consumer more. The aim of voluntary labelling is all well and good, but traffic light labelling is too comprehensive, and removes the importance of consumers finding out and knowing their own needs.

And with EU regulations on the way, such voluntary initiatives, which do not have the support of the food industry, could be storing up a great deal of confusion for the future.

Related topics Regulation & policy

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