In 2002, the Food Standards Agency published food labelling Guidance on how to compliantly use terms like ‘traditional’ ‘original’ and ‘pure’. A new FSA survey suggests the industry still has a lot of work to do to catch up.
Who: The Food Standards Agency
When: February 2003
The Food Labelling and Standards Division of the Food Standards Agency ("FSA") published a survey report of "An investigation of the use of terms such as "natural", "fresh" etc in food labelling."
The purpose of the survey was to examine the extent to which manufacturers were taking account of "criteria" for the use of these terms published by the FSA in July 2002.
The survey feedback was that enforcers such as trading standards welcomed the 2002 Guidance as consumer-orientated and helpful. The results of the survey however, do not convey such an encouraging message so far as industry is concerned.
Of the 220 examples examined, no less than 40% were considered to be non compliant with the Guidance.
Top of the non conformity charts was the term "farmhouse" where 75% of usage was regarded as inconsistent with the Guidance. The second most abused term was "traditional", where 44% were "inconsistent" and third and fourth were "home made" and "original" with 43% and 40% respectively.
Variance with Guidance not an offence
Non compliance with the Guidance is not of course an offence of itself, although the Guidance was intended to help manufacturers organise themselves so as to avoid committing the offence under the Food Safety Act 1990 of describing, presenting or advertising a food in a way that is likely to mislead the consumer to a material degree.
Accordingly an adverse result in the FSA survey report does not necessarily mean that the labelling is contrary to law. This is a question that only a court of law can decide. The report also includes manufacturers' comments where a product did attract an adverse report in the survey. These are a good read as some producers put a persuasive case against the FSA finding and in other cases are, how shall we say, "creative" in their explanation as to why the term in question was used.
The 2002 Guidance advises that it is inappropriate to label products as "fresh" where modern distribution, processing and storage methods have been used to extend the shelf life of the product.
Consequently, there was an adverse report on Bart Spices' "Fresh Coriander in Sunflower Oil", as it had been processed sufficiently to be given a "best before" date of May 2005.
Perhaps rather more controversially, two soups received an adverse finding on account of their being less "fresh" and more "short shelf life." The Co-op product here, "Fresh Soup. Carrot and Coriander" had a shelf life of 3-4 weeks. The Co-op commented in response to the adverse finding that they would be removing the word "fresh" from their new packs in 2004.
The New Covent Garden Food Co, however, were rather more pugnacious over their "Wild Mushroom Fresh Soup." They felt that the "fresh" claim caused absolutely no confusion and was an accurate description of their product: there were no undue processing and no added ingredients to extend its shelf life, any shelf life being gained because the product was simmered and packed hygienically. Since the FSA admitted that the product was "minimally processed" and with "all natural ingredients" with no special preservative added, one does have some sympathy with the manufacturer's comments here.
This was the third most commonly used claim in the survey, but there were eight adverse reports out of 23. Examples of use considered adverse are in three categories, compound foods described as "natural," compound foods containing non-natural ingredients and "no X or Y claims".
In the latter category, "Capri-Sun Orange Juice Drink - made with natural juice" received an adverse finding. There was a claim on the label " no artificial flavouring, colouring or preservatives". However, the drink contained added citric acid and ascorbic acid which would have flavouring anti-oxidant properties.
In the category of compound foods containing non natural ingredients, Snapple – Mango Madness carried on it the phrase "Natural Juice". However the product contained only 12% mixed juice, mainly apple, with an unquantified proportion of mango. Snapple's comment on this was that the report referred to an old label which had been replaced and which no longer carried the claim "Natural Juice".
Out of all the descriptive terms covered in the survey, this was least abused, with only one adverse report out of 12 products. The victim here was "High Strength Pure Enriched Cod Liver Oil" from Nature's Aid Health Products. The survey's comment here was that the cod liver oil could not be both "pure" and "enriched".
In its comments on the finding, Nature's Aid said that they felt the labelling was well understood by the average consumer, since the product was enriched with vitamins and EPA and DHA. The manufacturer does then accept, however, that changes need to be made to the labelling, which are proceeding.
Seventy five examples were examined here, thirty three of which attracted adverse reports. Cakes and meat products featured quite heavily.
This included a Tesco "Traditional Irish wheaten loaf" containing flour treatment agents which in the view of the survey were "unlikely to be part of the Irish tradition." There is no Tesco comment on this finding reported in the paper.
Also adversely reported was Baxters "Traditional Soup, Highlanders Broth." Here the survey did not believe that the use of herb extracts and garlic extract was part of the "tradition." Also under the cosh was Safeway's "Traditional Brussels pate with shallots." Here the use of ascorbic acid and sodium ascorbate were indeed declared on the product but were unlikely to comply with the terms "traditional" in the report's view.
Also Sainsbury's "Traditionally made pork and apple sausages" were not to the report's liking, since they used additives such as sodium phosphate stabiliser and sodium ascorbate antioxidant. Sainsburys' comments on this finding were robust and in essence rejected it. The retailer felt "traditionally made" (as opposed to just "traditional") was appropriate because the use of a mincing process and a higher meat content gave a product which was coarser in texture with a more distinct flavour and was therefore more associated with the traditional sausage. The preservatives in the product were purely to ensure food safety and did not in Sainsburys' view prevent the correct use of the phrase "traditionally made."
The 2002 Guidance advised that the use of descriptions such as "style" or "type" to qualify the terms covered by the advice should be avoided. An example in the survey was "Traditional style smooth pork pate with oranges" which was felt to be meaningless in context.
In the Guidance, "original" should only be used to describe a food that is made to a formulation, the origin of which can be traced and that has remained essentially unchanged over time.
This was not felt to apply to a Sainsburys' tiramisu dessert described as "from an original recipe of Veneto" since it contained ingredients such as thickeners, stabilisers and emulsifiers. In its comments on the finding, Sainsbury's felt that the reference to the original recipe of Veneto was accurate and that the addition of additives was purely to ensure food safety. However, the description had now been changed to "originating from Veneto."
Also under the microscope was McVities' "the original Jamaica ginger cake" which contained five modern ingredients. McVities, however, disagreed in their comments. They said that whilst minor recipe changes had been made (for instance responding to modern consumer demands by moving from animal fat to vegetable oil and avoiding use of potentially genetically modified ingredients such as soya flour) they felt that to the best of their knowledge the product in terms of "taste, texture and related eating quality" had not changed to any material degree since its original formulation.
The Guidance comments that "authentic" has a stronger meaning than "traditional", implying either that a product has remained unchanged through the passage of time or that it actually originates from the area implied by its name. Two examples out of fifteen were regarded as contrary to the Guidance. Both were Maysum brand samosas, which used dried onion, regarded as unlikely to be part of the original authentic Asian recipe.
There were two main strands of abuse here. Firstly, use of "home made" when the food was clearly not prepared in a domestic kitchen (for instance "Jenkin's Homemade cake" originating from an industrial park) and use of home made where modern ingredients not reflecting a typical domestic situation were deployed, for instance Del Sol Food Co's "Brianna's Home Style True Blue Cheese Dressing" where the product contained xanthan gum and sodium benzoate.
Abuse of the term "farmhouse" fell into three categories, produced at industrial premises, use of the term "style" and bread products.
In the first category were included Waitrose's "Country farmhouse slices" and "Farmhouse loaf cake" as both were believed to be factory produced. Waitrose commented here that they were due to review all their products that use similar phrases to make sure that they complied with the latest advice.
Also adverse to the Guidance according to the report were Morrisons' Farmhouse pate which was produced from an EC certified meat processing plant in Belgium and Co-op Organic's "Mature farmhouse cheddar" where an EC health mark suggested industrial production. Co-op, however, took issue with the FSA on this.
They referred, perhaps with some justification, to the fact that the product had been manufactured and certified as conforming to the Protected Designation of Origin ("PDO") under the relevant EU Council Regulation for "West Country Farmhouse Cheddar". That PDO had been granted because the product is made on farms, as it always has been since the 15th century, using milk which, except in times of shortage, comes from local farms. The Co-op noted "a conflict with the final FSA guidance" and had therefore highlighted it as "an issue to be put to their consumer jury." However, they had not yet had the opportunity of doing so and in the meantime remained of the opinion that the FSA's advice should be amended to recognise the legitimacy of the use of the term Farmhouse in a PDO context.
Why this matters:
The conclusions of the report record that the use of the terms in focus is clearly widespread. This in turn suggests that consumers are attracted by them and are induced to make purchases on the strength of them. It is all the more important therefore, the report goes on, that consumers are not misled by their misapplication.
The reasons for non-compliance fall into two broad categories. These are firstly where products are described as natural, pure, traditional or original but make use of modern ingredients or processes. Secondly, there are products described as "home made" or "farmhouse" which are manufactured in larger scale industrial settings.
In deference to industry, the report does accept that the Guidance had only been available for a little over a year when the survey was conducted. It also accepts that there may be a small number of cases (perhaps for example the Co-op "Mature farmhouse cheddar" example) where revisions to the guidance could make interpretation easier or where additional guidance to cover specific food commodities or processes would be useful.
Overall, however, the survey does indicate that whilst the majority of manufacturers are taking account of the Guidance, there is still significant room for improvement and all manufacturers and advertisers of foods using any of the terms fresh, natural, pure, traditional, original, authentic, home made or farmhouse should take a look at the report.