Food labelling in Ireland is a farce
Labelling laws in this country are so vague that they allow manufacturers to get away with the most outrageous lies, writes CONOR POPE
THERE IS SO much that is apparently “traditional” on offer in Irish supermarkets these days that it really is a wonder sean nós singers can’t be found stacking shelves while comely maidens in Aran jumpers wander the aisles doing the Walls of Limerick to a bodhrán beat provided by Peig Sayers.
If it’s not traditional that, it’s natural this or hand-carved the other as retailers and their suppliers fall over themselves to flog us products using every underhand trick at their disposal. And there are loads of tricks at their disposal.
The labelling laws in this country – and indeed in most countries – are so woolly that they allow manufacturers to get away with the most outrageous lies.
What does natural mean? Or artisan? Or home-made? Or farm fresh? Or hand-cooked? Or hand-crafted? The short answer is absolutely nothing and the reality is that if the maker of a particularly caustic bleach wanted to label their product as a “home-made, natural country-style artisan bleach” and flog it as some class of life-enhancing elixir, there is virtually nothing that can be done to stop them.
It shouldn’t really be like this anymore. It is 10 years since the first comprehensive report on food labelling was published here. When the authors of the report, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) released it, it warned food manufacturers that the use of incorrect, misleading or illegal labels would no longer be tolerated.
“It is unacceptable that consumers are purchasing foodstuffs where the labelling is incorrect, lacking clarity or is simply portraying the product as something it is not,” said the then FSAI chief executive, Dr Patrick Wall. “Industry now has no excuse for mischievous, misleading or illegal labelling and cannot claim ignorance of the legal regulations. The onus is on the manufacturer to demonstrate that any claims are true.”
That was 10 years ago but if you take a wander around your local supermarket today and look closely at the labels, you won’t have to wait long before you see labels which are mischievous.
Manufacturers frequently exploit our ignorance to enhance their profits. The word “local” has become increasingly popular in recent years as research has shown consumers like the notion that their food comes from a “local” place. But does local mean within 20km of where you are standing or 200km? Or 2,000km?
The answer is none of the above. “Local doesn’t mean anything unless it is defined,” says broadcaster and Ear to the Ground presenter Ella McSweeney, who has been highlighting the woolly nature of food labelling in Ireland for years. “That’s why I like the use of terms like ‘Made in Inishowen’ or ‘Made in Cork’, etc, where producers define what local means to them and you can make up your own mind if you agree. The same goes for ‘artisan’. This term is devoid of regulatory meaning and when you see it, you should mentally Tipp-Ex it off the label,” she suggests.
There are even more devious ways producers can get us to part with our cash. Just look at how we are sold bread, particularly wholegrain bread. It is a hugely popular staple in Ireland with millions of loaves of the stuff being sold to Irish consumers every week. People see wholegrain on the packaging and reach for the product believing it must be better for them than the less wholegrainy alternatives.
The reality is wholegrain is an almost entirely meaningless term and a lot of products that market themselves as wholegrain use dark brown colours on their wrappers or deceptive names to create the impression that what lies beneath the packaging is intrinsically connected with the health benefits of whole grains. What they gloss over is the reality that many such products have ordinary refined wheat flour as a main ingredient. In fact one survey found over half the wholegrain breads sold in Ireland had more white flour than wholemeal flour.
Labelling is not an entire free-for-all and companies do have legal obligations to provide certain information about ingredients and nutrient content. But companies are allowed to present the information in microscopic writing that sometimes requires quite complex mental arithmetic to work out the salt content of a product when all that is listed is the amount of sodium it has, particularly when you have two screaming children hanging off you in your local supermarket.
When it comes to labelling meat, strict rules apply to beef, but it’s a different story when it comes to chicken and pork. Almost all the chicken used in Irish catering is imported and the contents of the “freshly cut” (by hand, maybe?) chicken sandwich which lies sweating in a plastic coffin in your local supermarket waiting for you to buy it may have hatched in Thailand before being transported to Europe to be pumped with chemicals before finally ending up in Ireland where it is processed.
There is also confusion about what free range chicken and eggs actually mean as not many of the birds which are labelled as such ever get to spend much time roaming outdoors. They might have the EU-mandated minimum of four square metres of space in which to grow up and die but, critics says, that hardly makes them particularly free.
At least there is some legal definition for free range chicken. When it comes to pork there is nothing, so an unscrupulous producer could intensively rare pigs however he saw fit and then call the end product free range and consumers have no comeback.
Unsurprisingly, manufacturers shout about the positives of their products to a sometimes ridiculous degree. There is no legal impediment stopping a manufacturer claiming a product made with 99 per cent refined white sugar – the bad kind – from plastering their packaging with “low fat” or zero fat claims. It’s true but kind of misses the point.
“All natural” is another problematic phrase with the problem being that it means absolutely nothing at all. This phrase is among the most common claims made on new food products but while it might create a feel-good factor amongst would-be shoppers it says nothing about the provenance or quality of any product.
“Companies will throw every marketing trick in the book at customers to convince them about how their food was reared or produced,” says McSweeney. “Nine times out of 10, the theme is the same: this food came from the green, lush fields of Ireland; it was hand-made by a traditional artisan family team in their farmhouse. Oh, and don’t you know? The farmhouse is just a few miles down the road from here. It’s all a trick and should be ignored.”
She says the people who are most hurt by “the mess that is food labelling in Ireland” are small farmers and small producers. “It’s their food that is produced as near to what you imagine ‘traditional’, ‘local’, ‘farmhouse’ is in Ireland. But because there is no regulation or oversight when it comes to the use of these words, they are used on everything and anything. It devalues them.”
Her advice to consumers when shopping is to assume you are being misled. “I know that sounds bleak! But it’s the only way to manoeuvre through the mess that is food labelling in Ireland. Unless you know and trust the farmer, food producer, butcher or grocer, you are leaving yourself wide open – the aisle of the shop becomes a fool’s paradise.”
WHAT ON EARTH DO THEY MEAN? THE TWITTER VIEW ON THE CLAIMS YOU LOVE TO HATE
Most meaningless has to be “handmade sandwiches”. #howelsedoyoumakethem@playcock
Supports your toddlers immune system or in fact anything on a follow on formula can. Simply more advanced? Grr. @jennyfoxe
Artisan pork is a way of adding value to intensive pork. All pork reared intensively should be labelled “The meat in this pack was sourced from intensively reared pigs” until that day it’s all bluff. @Woodside_Farm
“Hand cooked”. As in crisps etc. How do you cook potatoes in your hands? @rossamcmahon
Marks Spencer’s “delicious” things. Er, it’s up to me to decide whether they’re delicious or not. @AnnieAtkins
“May contain nuts” ... on a jar of peanut butter ... derrr. @man_with_a_van
Hand crafted = not allowed to say hand-made i.e. no hands at all. @janerussells
“All natural”.... then why have a list of ingredients a foot long. @raymoranchef
Best before on spring water that’s been in the ground for millions of years according to the ads for the water. @silveryd44
“Improved recipe”. Also hate “artisan”. @Sinead_Fox
Free range on beef at farmers’ markets. Less than 0.1 per cent of Irish beef is fed indoors year round. @psneeze
I always get confused by the shampoo “for greasy hair”. But I don’t want greasy hair. @anniewestdotcom
When foods that are mostly made of sugar are labelled “fat free”. I mean, it’s true, but ... @janeruffino
All natural colouring, etc, on sweets ... really? It’s still full of sugar/E-Numbers/bad bits. @platinumjones
Meaningless: “gluten free” on a carton of milk. @miwhelan
Allergy warning: contains fish. No kidding. @John_Barrington
“Chemical free” is one that irritates, but that’s more on cosmetics/toiletries. @claireoconnell
THIS TERM actually means something. It is a certified, regulated word and if you see it on meat, vegetables, fish and fruit you can be assured that the food has been grown to certain – very exacting – standards.
Whether or not you believe its organic nature makes it any better for you or the environment is an entirely different story.
WHEN IT comes to poultry, “free range” is regulated and certified, although the definition is not without its problems and some poultry farmers have found ways to produce vast amounts of chicken meat in conditions which might make your stomach turn while still labelling the end result free range.
EU PGI, PDO, TSG
THESE LABELS are all legally protected and reflect the geographical area, traditions and methods by which food is made.
According to the EU the “purpose of the law is to protect the reputation of the regional foods and eliminate the unfair competition and misleading of consumers by non-genuine products, which may be of inferior quality or of different flavour”.
While producers in France, Spain and Italy in particular use these labels widely, there are only four foods with these labels in Ireland.