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Food law briefing: industry should fight for interests

By Anthony Fletcher , 17-Feb-2006

Law firm Eversheds tells FoodNavigator why Europe's food industry needs a voice in the ongoing debate over labelling, and outlines some of the battlegrounds to come.

The food industry is a highly regulated sector. New legislation is introduced all the time, making compliance a difficult objective.

In addition, the food industry sometimes struggles to be heard above the sound of trumpeted government proposals and pressure group arguments.

 

The food industry I think is very aware of food regulations and very active in keeping up to date, said Owen Warnock, a partner at Eversheds and an expert in labelling laws.

 

The difficulty however is that what the industry wants and what the regulators want is not always the same thing.

 

Labelling is a good example. The UKs Food Standards Agency (FSA) currently wants to push through a uniform system of traffic light labelling, which the food industry is generally opposed to.

 

Warnock says that in this particular instance, his job is to give advice and tell the food industry that there are ways in which it can resist the FSAs proposals.

 

Some form of European-level legislation is inevitable I think, said Warnock. What we can do is lobby on behalf of our clients in Brussels. And once the law is in place, we can help them navigate.

 

The FSA is expected to publish its recommendations at the end of March. But Warnock points out that they are just that, recommendations; they are not enforceable by law. The food industry, says Warnock, needs to register its concern over the accuracy of the proposals.

 

My guess is that they (the FSA) will press ahead with the proposals but they will be opposed, he said.

 

This issue illustrates a profound change that has occurred in how EU law is formulated and implemented. Beforehand, says Warnock, the EU plodded through, looking at individual recipes before granting approval and as a result, was not able to keep up with new product developments.

 

The new approach on the other hand emphasises transparency, putting greater stress on the need to describe a food product accurately. I believe that the future is further transparency in the food industry, he said.

 

And this of course, means achieving clarification during the formulation of EU labelling policy and ensuring that the food industrys interests are represented.

 

As a firm, we want to ensure that our advice is tailored to our clients needs, said Stephen Hopkins, who leads the food sector at law firm Eversheds.

 

To achieve this, we identified sectors that were key to our business, and which were growth sectors in terms of legal involvement. The food industry was one of these.

 

Eversheds has brought together specialists who can share their experiences to the benefit of the firms clients. Some of our specialists focus on issues such as contamination, health and safety, which are very food-specific, while a larger part of the group is made of people who have dealt with food companies, said Hopkins.

 

This helps us to understand our customers business; those little twists such as how employment law affects the food industry because of the number of immigrants working in the sector. The shared knowledge is then more easily dispersed to customers who might have common issues.

 

It also helps the firm identify future fault lines ahead, and where food makers need to pay attention.

 

Health claims is a big issue, said Warnock. There are at present a diverse set of health claims across Europe, and there is genuine debate about the validity of some of these claims.

 

Indeed, the related issues of health and obesity are likely to influence the formulation of most new EU food policy. Advertising to children is also very controversial, and Warnock points out that there have been already been some attempts to harmonise this.

 

Then there is the globalisation of the food industry, said Hopkins. Certainly here in the UK, many food manufacturers are looking to China and Eastern Europe.

 

Because of the long distance, China has not always been an option, but advances in ingredients and packaging have made this market of 1.4bn people accessible. The country is opening up to western diets. And some companies are looking to source ingredients from China, and this entails looking into EU novel foods and licensing laws.

 

Warnock adds that the firm is seeing more and more cases concerning contamination and litigation. The increasing number of high profile cases means that there is a great deal of work in terms of profit claims and contractual claims.

 

Most businesses realise that they have to be careful - each food scare builds on the last one, he said.