The future of food labelling? Current evidence on front-of-pack nutrition labelling

United Kingdom

As part of its Farm to Fork Strategy, the European Commission intends to introduce mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling in the European Union (“EU”) by the end of this year. Ahead of this, the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (“JRC”) has recently published the results of four scientific studies related to the provision of food information to consumers. The studies are aimed at synthesising the current evidence on front-of-pack nutrition labelling in addition to analysing what is currently present on the market in relation to the labelling of alcoholic beverages. The results are complementary to an earlier public consultation by the European Commission relating to a number of initiatives for revising EU legislation on food information to consumers.  

Front-of-pack nutrition labelling

The first study relates to front-of-pack labelling, with the results suggesting a move to a mandatory labelling scheme:

  • Consumers generally value front-of-pack nutrition labels as a quick and easy way to acquire nutrition information when making purchase decisions.

  • Less complex labels require less attention and time. 

  • Consumers appear to prefer simple, colourful, and evaluative summary front-of-pack labels, which are more easily understood.

  • Front-of-pack nutrition labels can guide consumers towards healthier diets.

  • Front-of-pack nutrition labelling seems to incentivise food businesses to improve the nutritional quality of their products, for example by reducing added salt or sugars.

Labelling of alcoholic beverages

Currently, alcoholic beverages containing more than 1.2% alcohol by volume are exempt from the obligation to display a list of ingredients and a nutrition declaration. Companies can opt to do this voluntarily, and the JRC study found that:

  • Voluntary provision of nutritional information is generally displayed by industry; ingredients are included on the label of most (ca. 90%) beers, and energy information to a lesser extent (ca. 25 to 50%).

  • Information on ingredients or energy is found less frequently on spirits, and very rarely on wine products.

  • Labels re-directing consumers to off-label ingredients and nutritional information are uncommon. 

Food information through other means than on labels, including digital means

The JRC also considered other means of food information available and how these influenced consumer choices:

  • Direct access to food information in the marketplace, such as menu labels, shelf-labels, and point-of-sale signs, can be effective at influencing consumers towards healthy behaviours.

  • If not provided on the food package, food information should be directly visible in the marketplace to be able to influence consumers.

  • There is a need for more research comparing the provision of food information through labels and digital means.

Origin labelling

The final study considered the impact of the origin of food information and how this may influence decision making:

  • Information about both country of origin and place of origin has a substantial influence on consumers’ food choices.

  • Consumers attach importance to origin information as a cue to good quality and “environmentally friendly” products and on average there is a desire to support their local farmers.

  • When shopping, consumers may focus less on origin information than they would like to (because of time pressure, the attractiveness of brands etc.).

Comment

The results provide an interesting overview of the general direction in which food information labelling may be heading in the EU, with the European Commission confirming that they will be used to inform the proposal to introduce mandatory front-of-pack labelling currently planned for the end of 2022. Future EU changes might therefore include not only nutritional information but origin labelling, and a mandatory requirement for adding ingredients to the label of alcoholic beverages products. The studies also demonstrate that the way information is displayed is vitally important. This is in line with the recent criticisms and revisions of the ‘Nutri-Score’ label algorithm, in particular, in relation to the assessment of sugar content.

In the UK, front of pack nutrition labelling remains voluntary, and it looks as if this may not change anytime soon. The Food Standards Agency launched a Front of Pack Nutritional Labelling consultation in July 2020, with the aim of gathering views and evidence on a future UK ‘multiple traffic light’ labelling scheme, however, it has yet to publish feedback or take this initiative further, possibly because it considers the current approach to be adequate. This would appear to be in contrast to the results of research recently conducted by Nestlé Cereals, which revealed that 34% of UK consumers do not know what the traffic light front-of-pack nutrition labelling system means, with 11% saying they were not even aware of its existence.

Meanwhile, focus appears to have turned to the provision of food information for consumers in other areas. The labelling of calories on menus for businesses with over 250 employees became mandatory from April this year (Calorie labelling – considerations for food business operators (cms-lawnow.com), and restrictions on the placement, price, and online promotion of foods high in fat, sugar and salt are due to come into force from October 2022 (albeit reports suggest that there is current political will to scrap this initiative).

There has also been movement towards providing sustainability information on food labels with the aim of empowering consumers to make informed choices. In our previous Law-Now, The future of food labelling? Voluntary sustainability food label pilot and proposed metrics, we discussed how various initiatives had been launched in relation to sustainability labelling for food products, putting the UK government under increased pressure to provide a standardised form of sustainability label and to introduce a more unified approach. One of the key initiatives discussed was a voluntary pilot scheme launched by Foundation Earth, which allowed food business operators to include an “eco-score” on the label of their food products. Since then, Foundation Earth has published its one-year learnings from the initiative, concluding that on-pack labels are the ultimate way to achieve transparency for consumers and that consumers place significant value on the independent verification of eco-labels. For the time being, sustainability labelling for food products in the UK remains voluntary, however, it seems likely that a standardised form of sustainability labelling is on the horizon. This would follow the general trend in other product categories - energy labelling requirements were applied to an expanded non-food product range in the UK in 2021, and the UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs has recently opened a consultation for mandatory water efficiency labelling for certain non-food products.

Food business operators should therefore carefully track the developments in this area both at UK and EU level and contribute to any future consultations to ensure that any form of revised labelling requirements are satisfactory for their products.

Article co-authored by Alexandra Brown, Trainee Solicitor at CMS.