EU requirements mean Irish food labelling does exactly what it says on the tin
OPINION:CONTRARY TO misinformed views, food labelling in Ireland is robust and is as good as in any other EU state.
While we might wish it were otherwise, in modern Ireland more and more food is bought pre-packaged from shops and supermarkets. Knowing what you eat and choosing the right diet is important. Accurate and useful labelling on food products is essential if we are to make informed and healthy choices.
Food labels have two purposes: to meet legal obligations by providing information such as the name of food, ingredients, use-by dates and storage conditions, and nutritional information on calorie content and key components such as sugar, fat and protein; labels also proclaim the benefits and joys of purchasing and eating.
Labelling is not just a fact sheet but also a form of advertising, so some discretion and scepticism are required. The key point is consumers should not be misled to a material degree. There is no wine in wine gums and no cream in cream crackers. But we all know that, don’t we?
Ireland’s food labelling laws arise almost exclusively from our EU membership. The rules are complex, but based entirely on the principle that consumers have the right to know. Europe has very detailed rules, and these are set to become even more demanding with the adoption just recently of EU food information regulation.
Contrary to the impression given by Conor Pope’s article last week in The Irish Times on the topic, labelling is not a lawless free-for-all. Most labels comply with rules. Some claims are made for which no legal definition exists such as those he cited – “natural”, “local” or “artisan”, and some – “freshly squeezed” or “handmade” for example – are less than meaningful.
However, robust laws are in place to control more serious claims such as those related to reduction in risks of disease, children’s health and claims about nutritional content such as calcium, fibre and vitamins.
As regards food composition rules, Pope makes a reasonable point about wholemeal bread. There is no set standard. This is something the Food Safety Authority of Ireland will work on to try to find a solution. Within the EU some products have to meet compositional standards. These include fruit juices, honey, chocolate and many alcoholic drinks. However, the number of such food types is small.
The EU concept is to allow the market to produce and sell many foods, and to inform consumers through accurate labelling. Some products with “designations” or “origins”, and hence their labels, are protected by EU law – such as Parma ham and champagne. Ireland has been slow to avail of such legal protections with only four Irish foods so registered.
Origin or provenance of food is still a matter of debate. The good news is the EU food information rules require mandatory country of origin labelling to extend from beef to meat from pigs, sheep, goats and poultry. While this might not address the issue of processed foods with ingredients from many countries, it will be a big step up on current rules.
Other changes we can expect are front-of-pack nutritional information, increased font size on labels and declaration of salt content rather than sodium.
We don’t expect the new laws will satisfy all critics, or that there will not still be some producers who will try to deceive people.
The authority and agencies who work with us to enforce food l are trying to combat illegal labels and fraud. There have been legal actions. Last week’s article was critical of many aspects of labelling. It did not recognise what has been achieved and much that is correct.
Disappointingly, it failed to name any products that were thought to be misleading or in breach of the law. Anyone can report any food products that they believe are in breach of the law to the authority.