What Brexit means for food labelling

* 3 min read
Our resident legal expert Phil Dalton, Head of Regulatory here at Sun Branding takes a closer look on what Brexit implications will affect the UK's food labelling legislation.

It is definitely too early to start planning for changes in food labelling rules following Brexit, but we can start to identify those areas where the EU rules do not deliver for consumers, with a view to taking a fresh look at labelling when the Brexit dust settles, always assuming we are free in the UK at some point in the near future to diverge from the labelling rules followed in the EU.

The problems with current labelling rules is evidenced by the impotence of food labels to assist in addressing the obesity issue currently dominating the public health agenda. Fundamentally obesity is a result of individuals persistently making poor or inappropriate food choices resulting in them eating more calories than they expend. The reality of obesity is of course more complicated than calories, but it is becoming clearer that how we currently provide nutrition information, based on per 100g of a product as sold, has little influence on consumer choice. “Becoming clearer” because there is remarkably little research on whether consumers understand the data presented on pack, how they use it in practice, and what we can do to improve the situation. It is, however, fair to assume that the average consumer either doesn’t understand nutrition information as it is currently presented in the table on back of pack or doesn’t use it.

The answer to obesity is to modify behaviour to encourage better food choices. Labelling should be a key tool to drive behavioural change. Labelling is, in the words of Codex “one of the most important tools consumers can use to make informed choices about healthy and safe foods”. It is therefore crucial that the information we include on labels assists consumers in making appropriate choices for their health.

Before any changes to labelling rules are made we need to understand what changes would be beneficial. Here we are starting to see some data, with the recent report of the international study to measure understanding of front of pack nutrition labels emphatically endorsing the benefits of both the UK Multiple Traffic Light (MTL) and the French Nutri-Score approaches. Both schemes significantly increased the ability of consumers to quickly identify healthier products. This does not, of course, mean they would then choose the healthier products, but it gives consumers a fighting chance to make better choices. Consideration to making a colour code based front of pack scheme mandatory should therefore form part of the post Brexit deliberations on labelling.

The ability of consumers to select ‘healthier’ products is also hampered by the way in which EU Regulations control the use of health claims. Current Regulations restrict claims that products provide health benefits to a tightly controlled list of authorised claims published in the EU Register. These authorised claims are linked, in the main, to vitamins, minerals and other micro nutrients.

The public message to eat healthier is, by contrast, focussed on calories, fat and sugar. None of these can be linked in labelling to ‘health’ or ‘healthier’ because there are no authorised claims on the Register that authorise this link.

The concern around this disconnect between labelling of ‘health’ and the public health message is exacerbated when products in health ranges or labelled as ‘healthy’ can be so labelled based on the presence of a single vitamin or mineral at 15% of the reference intake, irrespective of any other aspect of its nutrient profile. The EU pledge to ban certain product labels from including health claims based on ‘Nutrient Profiles’ is now close to 10 years beyond its deadline date for implementation. This would have prevented products with more than one ‘red’ nutrient from making any health or nutrition claims.

The consequence of this is that currently products labelled as ‘healthy’ are not required to have a positive impact on obesity, and may in some cases even be poor choices from that perspective.

Brexit may give us the opportunity to amend or re-interpret this legislation in the UK to prevent products high in fat, sugar or calories from making health claims, and to allow products that are better choices in the struggle against obesity to make the link to health on labels with the objective of facilitating choice. By providing consumers with a prompt at the point of purchase to buy healthier products, in the form of a clear indication on the label, there is the potential for labelling to make a positive contribution to better food choices in the UK aligned to the public health agenda.