An end to the packet racket?

Once derided as a toothless watchdog, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) appears to have at last got its fangs stuck into a hot topic – the use of misleading terms in the labelling and advertising of food and drink products.

It has lambasted the food and drink industry for the use of “meaningless drivel”, “over-romanticised description” and “sloppy” terms.

Following a two-year study by the FSA’s Food Advisory Committee, a list of offending words has been drawn up. It includes “fresh”, “natural”, “pure”, “traditional” and “original”. Added to those are “authentic”, which the FSA recommends should only be used to emphasise the geographic origin of a product; “home-made”, which should be restricted to the preparation of the recipe on the premises and must involve “some degree of fundamental culinary preparation”; and “farmhouse”, the use of which should be clarified, as the public would expect the term to mean prepared in a farmhouse or to the same quality and style likely to be produced on a farm.

But despite being concerned by the widespread use of meaningless phrases and the tendency of labellers to be “economical with the truth”, the FSA disappointingly refuses to name and shame offenders. Instead, this week it is to embark on a consultation exercise with the food industry in a bid to draw up a new set of guidelines. These will be used to support prosecutions using existing British and EU legislation, under which offenders can be fined up to £5,000. So Marketing Week reporters have trawled the aisles of a number of leading food retailers in an attempt to put a little flesh on the bones of the FSA’s initiative. As you would expect there are plenty of examples of food labels which would potentially fall foul of any guidelines that are eventually introduced. But do consumers care about – or even believe – the descriptions on food packaging? The Food & Drink Federation, which represents the industry, claims that consumers are “savvy”. They may be when it comes to a dried soup whose description – “Farmhouse Vegetable Soup” – allegedly denotes the style of soup, rather than implying that it is made in a farmhouse. But there are many examples of labelling which could prove challenging for the consumer.

The FSA is not the only body coming down hard on food manufacturers. The Advertising Standards Authority last week issued a guidance note in an attempt to prevent retailers and producers from making false and misleading claims about organic food. They will be unable to state that organic food is safer or healthier than conventional food, or that it tastes better, unless they have convincing evidence to that effect.

Yet none of these labelling rules will get to the nub of the problem – the undermining of consumer confidence in the food chain thanks to endless scandals including, but not limited to, the introduction of genetically modified ingredients or BSE-infected meat. The only people truly to benefit will be the design experts and advertising agencies recruited to revamp packaging and create new ads at huge cost.

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