Who can you trust when it comes to food labelling?

* 3 min read

Every now and then the tabloid media releases a sensationalist story about food labelling.

A recent piece on “The great food label con” is a case in point. It’s asserts that customers are being “duped by misleading claims on packs”. The implication that this is a widespread practice is deeply misguided and extremely unhelpful. In reality, the opposite is true. Food labelling is founded on a professional and highly regulated structure. A great deal of effort goes into presenting the information consumers require in a clear and accessible way.

Articles like this can do a lot of damage. Labelling is there to help us make the right food choices. And misleading tabloid headlines reduce public confidence in the facts that facilitate these choices. Why muddy the water? Even if one reader is influenced by an unfounded article it impairs the effectiveness of food labelling.

Naturally, there is information on-pack that aims to sell a product. In addition to protection and carrying essential information, a primary purpose of packaging is to make the product attractive to consumers. No-one denies that there are a minority who will take this too far and exaggerate the quality or benefits of the food. But to present this in a way that suggests food labelling is generally untrustworthy is irresponsible.

It’s in brands’ interest to ensure packaging and labelling is accurate. Not only to avoid legal penalties, but also to encourage repeat purchase. It’s simple. The packaging sells the product the first time, but it’s the quality of the product inside that sells it the second time. Consumers want to know what they’re getting. If the packaging doesn’t reflect what it purports to contain that’s when they will feel duped – and avoid buying the product again.

In recent years the food industry has created a significant infrastructure to collect information about products and ensure this information is accurately presented on packaging. Millions of pounds a year are spent on product specification systems and on independent checks on labels to ensure they meet legal requirements. These legal requirements include Article 7 of the Food Information to Consumers Regulation, which states ‘food information shall not be misleading’. Modern specification systems ensure that all statements and claims on pack are true and can be substantiated.

Nobody is saying our current systems are perfect. But there’s no doubt the situation has improved over the last 20 years. Far more information about products is available and there is much more scrutiny by the industry on the information it places on its labels. Nutritional information, for instance, has become a lot more accessible. Guidance is out there and readily available online. It’s also helpfully expressed through initiatives like “five a day” in schools and traffic light labelling on-pack, voluntarily adopted by many retailers and food manufacturers.

Labelling is intended to meet the needs of a reasonably well-informed consumer. It tries to cater to lots of consumers all with different individual needs. The main problem today is not the absence or the accuracy of information on labels – packs are crowded with useful material – it is the lack of understanding amongst consumers about how to interpret it.

The reality is that consumers have to take in a fair amount of detail to fully grasp what they are buying. Individual elements of labels rarely tell the whole story and it is important that consumers know to look at all the information and have confidence in it to inform their food choices. The current lack of understanding is founded, at least in part, on the confusing and sometimes contradictory messages about what they should look for. This is multiplied by uncertainty as to whether they can rely on the information provided by industry at all. Misleading material in the press just makes things worse.

Only by delivering positive messages around food labelling will we encourage consumers to become better informed about their food and thereby able to make better choices.

This article originally appeared in Packaging News. Click here to visit their page: http://www.packagingnews.co.uk/features/comment/soapbox/food-labelling-clear-accessible-and-informative-dalton-11-07-2016