Which? brings misleading food labels to Defra

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Consumer protection Chemical industry

UK consumer advocacy group Which? has launched another scathing attack against food manufacturers who, it says, are acting irresponsibly by freely interpreting labelling guidance.

In an article published in the September issue of its Which? magazine, the group criticizes the use of food labelling terms such as ‘pure’, ‘fresh’, ‘natural’ and ‘real’.

Although some words and phrases are regulated, many aren’t. And you can bet that manufacturers know just how far to go when they use words such as ‘pure’, ‘fresh’ and ‘natural’. What’s more, while they know the difference between ‘juice’ and ‘juice drink’ and ‘flavour’ and ‘flavoured’, they’re probably relying on the fact that you don’t,”​ Which? tells consumers.

The issue stems from the fact that there is currently no legal definition of the terms for use on foods in the UK, although the Food Standards Agency (FSA) did set out some best practice guidelines in its ‘Criteria for the Use of the Terms Fresh, Pure, Natural Etc in Food Labelling’ (2002).

Meaningless claims

Although this guidance is limited in its scope, the consumer advocacy claims it is sufficient to allow manufacturers to responsibly label and advertise their products.

“Saying the guidance is confusing is not really an excuse. If you’re having difficulty defining something for the consumer, it’s a meaningless claim and you shouldn’t be using it,”​ said Which? advocacy advisor Mette Kahlin.

In its article, the group identifies a number of popular food and drink items, which it says mislead consumers by their use of these terms.

It has brought these to the attention of the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which has taken over food labelling regulation, and says it hopes to meet to discuss the issue shortly.

However, Kahlin stressed that tighter regulation is not the answer. “Which? doesn’t necessarily support the need for more regulation. This article was to highlight that certain industry players need to be more responsible. It’s really up to the industry to make sure they don’t mislead consumers,”​ she said.

Labelling guidance

According to FSA’s labelling guidance, the term ‘natural’ means "produced by nature, not the work of man or interfered with by man"​. The term relates to both the origins of an ingredient and the processes to which it might have been subjected.

Specifically, it would be considered misleading to use the term to describe foods or ingredients that used chemicals to change their composition or comprised the products of new technologies, including additives and flavourings that were the product of the chemical industry or extracted by chemical processes.

For example, processes that could not be considered natural include: Concentration, pasteurisation, sterilisation, bleaching, oxidation, smoking and tenderising with chemicals and hydrogenation.

The guidance also stipulates that ‘pure’ should be used to denote “single ingredient foods”​ such as pure butter or pure juice, and should not be used for foods made up of multiple ingredients. It states that the term ‘pure’ should not be used in any brand names if it does not meet the rest of their criteria.

In addition, the guidance states that “it may not be helpful to use ‘real’ to emphasise the presence of fruit juice when it’s only a low-percentage level.”

Kahlin said that if manufacturers are unsure about how to interpret the guidance, they “can always go to Defra”​ or check the legitimacy of their advertising with the UK Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) Copy Advice service, available here​.

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