Food labels are not just pretty images designed to attract our attention or to tell us as consumers whether we are buying salt and not sugar. Labelling requirements apply to all producers, including international traders whose labels must also comply with country of origin requirements.
Foods though – because we ingest them with such potentially dire implications for our health and those of our animals – must meet special rules. Food labels are governed by national laws and regulations to which food manufacturers must conform. Aimed at helping consumers to make informed choices when buying as well as using and storing food products, food label requirements have also changed over time.
Front of Package Labelling
A global pandemic with regards to lifestyle diseases from consumption of foods high in sugar, salt, fat, or other potentially harmful substances is prompting the latest changes. Food manufacturers around the world are preparing to implement Front of Package Labelling (FOPL) laws. These new requirements are aimed specifically at telling consumers which products contain excessive amounts of sugars, total fats, saturated fats, trans fats, and sodium.
US Food Labelling Laws
All claims, statements, and graphics used in the labeling of food items produced in or imported into the United States must comply with US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations. The FDA considers a food to be misbranded if its labeling is false or misleading. This could result both from false assertions or the failure to reveal information material to the customary or normal use of the food product.
The FDA also limits the types of claims that can be made on labels:
Health claims characterize the relationship between the food or one or more of its ingredients and a disease or health-related condition. They can be used only when supported by scientific evidence. An illustration is – “Diets low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure.”
Structure function claims may describe the role of a nutrient or dietary ingredient intended to affect the normal structure or function of the human body, for example, “calcium builds strong bones”.
Nutrient content claims characterize the level of a nutrient in a food through such terms as “free,” “high,” or “low,” or they compare the level of a nutrient in a food to that of another food, using terms such as “more,” “reduced,” and “lite.”
Beginning in 2016, manufacturers for the U.S. market have been required to make the nutrition facts on the label of packaged foods easily read and understood by the average grocery shopper. These changes take into account available research findings about the impact of sugar and fats on the body. These changes also came with a new look, aimed at helping consumers to more easily understand how much of these nutritional substances were in the foods they would be buying and eating.
The New Frontier
Developed by the World Health Organization (WHO), front of package labelling requirements are being implemented by several countries (excluding the United States). These new requirements aim to quickly and graphically inform consumers about products containing excessive amounts of those nutrients we now know contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other lifestyle diseases. Will we pay attention? The challenge for food manufacturers, particularly in developing countries, will be to apply the existing science about what constitutes “high” or “excessive” nutritional content to their product(s).
Producers and consumers around the world need to prepare to navigate this new frontier in the fight to contain yet another global pandemic.
I am a seasoned international trade and customs attorney, and policy adviser for various companies and governments with a demonstrated history of successfully developing and implementing sustainable and dynamic trade programs. I am experienced in creating partnerships with various business-support organizations to drive compliance and growth in the international market.