Supermarkets are failing to adequately label the additives in loose food such as fresh fruit and fish, and, according to food pressure groups, they risk endangering the lives of consumers.
Apples glazed with beeswax and smoked mackerel with colouring are two examples of food that is sold loose, while containing additives. But loose food is exempt from most of the labelling regulations governing pre-packaged food and some retailers are ignoring those that do apply.
Maureen Fitzgerald, a lecturer in marketing at the University of Kent and a trustee of the British Allergy Foundation, says for a consumer with a food allergy, the grey area on labelling loose, delicatessen-counter produce could prove dangerous.
“Everything that goes into a product must be labelled, for loose and packaged produce,” she says. “At the moment people have to take a risk or avoid products altogether.”
Fitzgerald herself was hospitalised after suffering an anaphy- lactic reaction, the most severe, and potentially fatal, form of allergic reaction there is, to fresh dates bought from a leading chain which she alleges were not labelled as containing colouring. A woman in Lancashire also had the same reaction after eating produce from a wet fish counter which she believes was caused by unlabelled additives.
Local Authority Coordinating Body of Trading Standards food spokesman Les Bailey says: “Non pre-packaged food escapes nearly all the regulations of pre-packaged foods. Only a limited amount of information needs to be given. Theoretically there is no reason to treat pre-packaged and non-packaged food differently, it is more a question of practicality.”
Under UK law, packaged foods must be labelled with the category of additive – such as colour, preservative and flavouring – and the name of the additive or its E number.
Labels on food sold loose has to indicate just six categories – antioxidants, colour, flavouring, flavouring enhancer, preservatives and sweetener. They do not have to list emulsifiers, anti-caking agents, glazing agents and stabilisers, among others.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food fact-sheet on food intolerance says: “Chemicals added to food are often thought to be a significant cause of adverse reactions,” although the fact sheet says they are hard to demonstrate.
Consumers are unaware that some products sold on delicatessen counters have been processed, according to consumer watchdog the Food Commission. Smoked mackerel, for instance, is not normally smoked in the traditional manner today and can contain yellow colouring.
Commission spokesman Ian Tokelove says: “As soon as a process is undertaken there are additives involved. Dried fruits have preservatives, smoked fish has colourings, and apples are covered in beeswax and stored for months.”
Food additives and colourings lecturer at Sussex University Science Policy Research Unit Dr Erik Millstones says regulations governing labelling of loose foods are not tough enough. “There is quite a lot of evidence that even the existing regulations are not observed,” he says. “Trading standards and consumers have noticed the information is inadequate, especially on brightly coloured food.
“All processed foods that are sold loose should have the same kind of information as required for packaged food.”
The Consumers’ Association published a policy paper in Nov-ember 1997 calling on the food industry to adopt a single code of practice for packaged food labels, but the paper did not cover un-packed, loose food.
CA principal policy researcher Sue Davies says: “Food manufacture is getting more and more complicated and delicounter produce might not necessarily have the ingredients you think are in them.”
The MAFF fact-sheet on food intolerance says: “Retailers have suggested that for foods sold loose the most practical solution is to display notices inviting concerned consumers to seek more information from staff about any ingredients used.”
MAFF food labelling standards division officer Keith Gregory says: “There is some flexibility on how retailers present the information. It can be on a label attached to the food or on an easily discernible notice that will be seen by the purchaser.”
The primary reason for labelling regulations not being toughened on loose food seems to be a practical one – there is not enough room on the counters. “Customers would need binoculars,” says MAFF.
BAF trustee Maureen Fitzgerald says this is an example of the industry resisting change: “Manufacturers believe if food is fully labelled people won’t buy it, but the reverse is true: people will buy if they have a choice.”
“Customers have a right to know what is in their food. If food manufacturers cannot give that detail and retailers don’t display it, then it’s no wonder people think ‘what are they trying to hide?'”
The Co-op has campaigned for honest labelling and has made an effort on one unpacked line, Cuisine de France bread, with consumer leaflets. CWS (Cooperative Wholesale Society) head of marketing Wendy Wrigley says: “We are conscious that labelling on loose food is not good enough and the industry should do more.”
An Asda spokesman says: “We always indicate if loose products contain additives – we have done for years. The labels are on each product. It’s a legal requirement.”
Sainsbury’s says: “Any fresh products with preservatives or antioxidants are labelled. Any product containing between five and ten per cent water is labelled as is country of origin.”
A new public body, The Food Standards Agency, is expected to be set up by the end of 1999. It will have power to take action across the whole food chain with labelling and additives forming part of its remit.
It may be the next millennium before manufacturers, retailers and consumers begin to see eye to eye over the delicounter.