Will they eat their words?

The Food Standards Agency wants to overhaul of food labelling in a bid to eradicate misleading and false information on food packaging. The initiative could mean thousands of brands will be forced to change their names, but will the FSA be abl

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) will this week contact the chief executives of British food manufacturers and retailers to tell them that they are being “economical with the truth” in the way they label and advertise many of their products.

The FSA is beginning a three-month consultation with the industry concerning phrases and images used to market food brands as part of its ongoing Food Labelling Review. The FSA, under the auspices of its food labelling tsarina Rosemary Hignett, will seek to stamp out what it sees as the widespread use of meaningless and sloppy terms in labels and ads.

Food companies and their trade bodies will have 90 days to comment on these charges, and the FSA will then formulate guidelines for the use of terms such as fresh, natural, pure, traditional, original, authentic, home-made and farmhouse. It will then be down to local authorities, through environmental health and trading standards officers, to enforce the new rules.

A report published last week, prepared by the Food Advisory Committee (FAC) – an independent body appointed by the FSA – will form the basis of these recommendations. It is likely that many food products will have to be either axed or rebranded. The guidelines will add another layer of subtlety to the creation of ads, and advertising creatives and brand designers – many of whom already complain that regulators are too prescriptive – will have to struggle with new rules on the way they portray brands.

Taking their word for it?

In its report, the FAC expresses concern that existing rules – as laid out in the Food Safety Act 1990, the Trading Standards Act 1968, the Food Labelling Regulations 1996 and existing advertising rules – do make provision regarding false or misleading claims, but they are not being strictly observed or enforced. It is for this reason, says the report, that it has embarked on the review.

The FAC report claims to “slam” some members of the food industry for misusing terms and says “labellers have a tendency to be economical with the truth”. But the report holds back from actually naming those brands that it thinks are misleading consumers.

A trip round any UK supermarket will reveal dozens of brands that are likely to fall foul of any forthcoming regulations, assuming they replicate the recommendations laid out in last week’s FAC report. For example, the report says that brands should only use the term “farmhouse” if the product was actually made in a farmhouse – which it defines as a house on a farm, or more specifically the main dwelling of a farmer himself.

So Colman’s cook-in sauce product Casserole Sauce for Farmhouse Pork with Garden Vegetables may be forced to reword its label. On the back of the bottle, the product is described as “farmhouse vegetable sauce to add to pork”. Unilever Bestfoods UK, the company that produces the sauce, refuses to comment on whether it was made in a farmhouse, or whether the vegetables were grown in a garden. Nor will Van den Bergh comment on why its Knorr Italian Minestrone is made in France rather than Italy. But it confirms that its Ambrosia Devon Custard is actually produced in Devon, at its plant in Lifton.

In response to the general accusations contained in the FAC report, the company says: “Unilever Bestfoods UK welcomes any initiative that helps consumer understanding. As soon as the guidelines have been clarified, the company will review product descriptions to ensure that they are all in line with these.”

The FAC report is clear enough – the word “farmhouse” is misleading if the product was not made in a farmhouse, but a Unilever spokeswoman adds: “We do not think we mislead consumers.”

Still, maybe a term such as “farmhouse vegetables” isn’t really so misleading – few consumers would imagine that a farmer’s wife had actually prepared the product herself if they are buying it packaged and from a supermarket shelf. Some argue that the word makes the food sound more attractive and encourages consumers to enjoy it. “Casserole sauce for pork with vegetables” certainly sounds far less enticing than Colman’s label.

Likewise with the ever-popular “farmhouse cheeses” that can be found on the shelves of most supermarkets. Do consumers actually think that the farmer sits in the kitchen churning milk into cheese especially for the local Safeway supermarket? It seems unlikely. They buy it and if they like it, they buy it again.

Clearing its name

Safeway sells various farmhouse cheeses. One is West Country Farmhouse Mature Cheddar, which claims to be: “A strong tangy traditional cheese made on the farm.” Another, Scottish Farmhouse Mature Cheddar, is described as: “Traditionally made from creamy local milk on a single farm in the Orkneys.”

But Safeway claims the use of “farmhouse” is justified in these cases. “The name used for this product [West Country Farmhouse] is a protected food name in European law, under a scheme of protection afforded to producers of traditional and regional food. The product is made on Coombe Farm, Crewkerne” while the Scottish Farmhouse Cheddar is “produced on Swanney Farm in Orkney,” says a statement. Although presumably, they were not made in the house where the farmer actually lives.

Other Safeway brands appear – superficially – to fall foul of the FAC report, such as Safeway Farmhouse Vegetable Soup In a Mug. But the supermarket says: “This product is a dried packet soup, made up by the addition of boiling water. The use of the word ‘farmhouse’ is to indicate the style of soup. Given that the product is a dried soup, it is extremely unlikely that consumers would assume that it is from an actual farmhouse – rather that it mimics a ‘farmhouse’ product.”

Marks & Spencer says it “welcomes” the FAC report. A spokesman says: “M&S supports honest and open labelling and providing consumers with meaningful information so that they are able to make an informed choice.

“M&S has been addressing many of the issues the report identifies for some time and will study the FSA Food Labelling Report to see how it may further respond to other labelling issues.”

When the chips are down

One of the products M&S may look at is the St Michael brand Authentic Tortilla Chips. The product bears a picture of a “typical” Mexican peasant complete with sombrero and horse. Yet the pack also bears a sticker with the words “American-style”. Furthermore, the labelling reveals that the product is made in the UK. Apart from a picture that is potentially offensive, the branding does not appear pernicious.

Yet it appears to contravene the FAC’s recommendations. The report says the term “authentic” should only be used to denote geographic origin to differentiate from other products not from that place, to describe a recipe used to make the product – the origin of which is specified, for example “authentic Indian curry recipe” – or to specify the purity of single ingredients.

Another M&S product that could come under scrutiny is its Farmhouse Multiseed Bloomer loaf. According to National Association of Master Bakers general secretary David Smith, this appears to combine two distinct types of loaf, one the farmhouse loaf (which is the only use of farmhouse accepted by the report) and the bloomer, a loaf baked on the sole of an oven, glazed with notches on the top. But, if M&S wants to experiment by creating new styles of bread by combining old ones, why should it be censured by the FSA? Smith says baking products could prove a real headache for the FSA food labelling police as different regions of the country give the same name to different products.

He says naming a loaf a farmhouse bloomer “would not be my first choice, but it is going to be difficult to apply the rules”.

The real deal

There are plenty of other products with branding that could attract the attention of the FSA’s Hignett. For example, Supercook Real Milk Chocolate Chips – why call them real? The report recommends “the use of these terms [real, genuine etc] is unnecessary and should be discontinued”.

Can GlaxoSmithKline really talk about “the light, malted goodness” of Horlicks? The report says “claims such as ‘natural goodness’… are largely meaningless and should not be used”. Horlicks even claims to help you “sleep better”, though there may be medical evidence to support this. Weight Watchers from Heinz may have to review its Country Vegetable Soup, as the report says the expression country-style “does not appear to have any specific meaning. We recommend that this phrase should not be used to describe any food or food ingredient.”

One area where many products may be safe is in the use of the term “original”. Ryvita’s Original Wheat Crackerbread, the Et Tu Caesar Original Caesar Salad Kit, or Original Pringles may all be justified says the report, if they really are the first version of a product that is distinct from any new variant of it. Likewise, “traditional” products – as in Safeway’s Traditional Salmon Pie – only need show the products are made using a traditional recipe.

Food labelling and branding will become a nightmare – as will creating ads. The report says ads must not use images of the countryside for a product that is not organic. What about images of Italy for an Italian pasta sauce that is actually produced in Holland?

Industry body The Food & Drinks Federation (FDF) has issued a stinging response to the FSA’s plans for tighter labelling regulations. It argues customers are “savvy”- generally true but not always – and that the FSA survey of consumers’ opinions cannot cite one term that the majority of the public think is misleading. But the FDF says it will work with the FSA to ensure labelling is not misleading.

However distasteful the industry believes the guidelines to be, food manufacturers and marketers will be forced to follow them. It will seriously curtail the ability of marketers to create effective branding for food and drink products. One aim of branding is to help consumers tell the difference between various products; this will be much harder in the brave new world of labelling that the FSA intends to create.

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