On December 13, 2014, a new European Regulation on food labelling (referred to as the Food Information Consumer Regulation) has entered into force.
The Act, supported by both European Parliament and member states, is bringing new requirements to enhance consumer understanding of food labels, through clear and concise product information. In particular, the new requirements focus on legibility, allergens and nutritional facts declaration.
In today’s context, all food suppliers and manufacturers will need to face the challenge to ensure their labels comply with the regulations of the countries where their products are sold, and in addition, optimise their artwork design process.
For the operators who intend to sell their products in Europe, these new changes might result in their current labels being adapted. Furthermore, in the context of international trade, it is fair to question whether this new regulation will work in harmony with other conciliating international laws—or if it will introduce completely new requirements.
If we look at how regulations are organised and linked between each other, we should start with the Codex Alimentarius, an international body set up in 1963 by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Different Interpretations & Implementation
Shelly, Indiana, US
The Codex has already developed general food labelling standards and guidelines to harmonise international practices but these guidelines are unfortunately not mandatory. Subsequently, in practice, there is a degree of interpretation and implementation that can differ from one country to another, which can be influenced by a variety of cultural factors as well as the consumer habits.
For instance, Canada follows the rules given by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the Food and Drug Act Agency (FDA), while the US follows the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Europe, the Regulation EU n° 1169/2011, the Middle East, the GCC rules, China, the GB standard 7718-2011, and so on.
As a consequence, even if most food labelling legislations are based on Codex Alimentarius guidelines, countries will apply them differently due to national requirements.
Exporting Products To Different Markets
In this context, exporting one product to a number of different areas is still an important challenge, with variable consequences for a non-compliant label. In such processes, it is very important to understand exhaustively the ins and outs of the implementation of compliant labels. Therefore, the following decision schema can be followed:
- 1.Identify the export country
- 2.Assess if the products can be accepted and sold in the given country
- 3.Assess if labels need to be adapted
- 4.In the case of multi-countries, assess how the label artworks designing process can be optimised
In order to work efficiently and achieve the above objectives, applicable national standards on food labelling and presentation, including products specifics, need to be perfectly known and is an integral part of the compliance process.
In theory, the structure of food labelling regulations is relatively similar worldwide. On the one hand, there are the basic requirements including mandatory mentions which must be applied (such as product name, ingredients list), as well as the optional ones, such as the nutritional table. Product specifics also need to be added.
On the other hand, in practice, there are significant differences which need to be noted. Both mandatory and optional requirements can vary from country to country, depending on the interpretation of the regulation requirements within each country.
To demonstrate this complexity, we can take some examples:
1.One word, but different standards.
The word ‘chocolate’ can illustrate this case pretty well. In Europe, ‘chocolate’ refers to the product obtained from cocoa products and sugars which contains not less than 35 percent total dry cocoa solids, and vegetables fats (other than cacao butter) are allowed within a content of five percent.
While in the US, ‘chocolate’ is classified either as ‘sweet chocolate’, ‘semi-sweet chocolate’ or ‘bitter sweet chocolate’, and refers to a product obtained from a minimum of 15 percent cacoa liquor; no vegetable fat (other than cacoa butter) is allowed.
2.One similar language, but different wordings.
For instance, US English is not the same as UK English; European French is different to that of Canadian French as well.
3.Common general requirements but different labelling contents.
If we consider Europe, the US and China for example, all three countries will request for labels to be written in the language of their consumers, even if the general requirements are the same, such as to have a product name, ingredients list, net quantity or volume, and the name of the structure responsible for the product.
But to some extent, labelling contents will still differ. For instance in the US, the quantitative ingredients declaration is not mandatory whereas in Europe, the nutritional table will definitely become mandatory on December 13, 2016—except for specific cases.
Language will have to be adapted for the destination country. It is important to ensure the technical translation is accurate, taking into account the wording and compliance with national regulations.
- Legibility: The size of the characters can differ from 1.2 mm in Europe to 1.8 mm in China or 1.6 mm in US, whereas the Middle East only requests that characters are in a readable font size. Exceptions exist for small packages.
- Field of vision: In Europe, the name and net weight has to be in the same field of vision. The US uses the same structure, where the name and net weight has to be in the same principal display panel.
- Allergens: Authorised allergen lists are different from one country to another. It is then primordial to understand these different lists—a breach in the allergens declaration can have important consequences including for consumer safety.
- The Net quantity is probably one particular area which is at the end, the most harmonised. The size of the net weight or net volume figures depends of the net weight or volume itself. For weights between 0 to 50 g, figures will have to be written in a font size of 2 mm minimum; between 50 and 200 g: 3 mm minimum; between 200 and 1,000 g: 4 mm minimum and above 1,000 g: 6 mm minimum.
- Best Before Date (BBD): The date format can differ from a country to another. In the case of Europe, they work with either day/month/year or month/year format; whereas in the US, BBD is written as month/ day/year. Coincidently, Japan and China also have a different way of presenting the information with year/month/day format instead. Once again if BBD is not presented properly, it can completely mislead the consumers.
- Nutrition Labelling: In recent years, the global trend has moved to a mandatory nutrition labelling regardless of whether a health or nutrition claim is made.
In reflection of this trend, the Codex guidelines were amended to recommend a mandatory nutrition labelling even in the absence of health claims. Many countries that had voluntary guidelines in place have followed these recommendations.
For example, China adopted a national standard for mandatory nutrition labelling, which took effect on January 1, 2013. The EU adopted in September 2011 the Regulation on Food Information to Consumers, which makes nutrition labelling mandatory as of December 13, 2016.
All these elements show that there are still important differences between Europe and other international laws, and that, most of the time, adaptation of the labels is necessary.
However, there are also items and particulars which can be gathered and combined depending on the designated countries, and this is also where optimisation can be considered. In this case, the protocol for decisions will be:
- 1.List the countries where the product is destined to be sold
- 2.Evaluate all the regulations to be taken into consideration
- 3.State on the non-negotiable items and validate the possible compatibility of the mentions present on a same label, and present them in the same field of vision
- 4.Decide the implementation of mono or multi language labels.
Ensuring compliance of the labels is more than ever, a prerequisite to maximise consumer safety, to minimise the risk of penalties or withdrawals from the local authorities, and to respect the basic requirement of never misleading the consumer.
In the context of fast media communication where any issue can be forwarded to a different part of the world within minutes, this is ultimately a question of securing the brand.