For what amounts to a fairly small space on a tin or on a display ticket, a label's contents are governed by a wealth of regulations.
Some things must be there, such as ingredients, place of manufacture and what to do with it - it literally should do what it says on the tin. Then there are the many marketing terms to fit in, none of which is required by law.
Enforcement of food composition and food labelling falls to trading standards officers, who have wide powers. They carry out routine inspections and can also visit in response to a complaint.
"We want to assure compliance and work with businesses to comply. We would rather do that than 'catch people out'," says Phil Thomas, one of the lead officers for food at the Institute of Trading Standards.
"My advice to retailers is that, if they are in any doubt, they get in touch with their local Trading Standards."
Most foodstuffs come prepackaged. When food is not prepacked, then the only requirements for display are the name of the food, its price and its weight (metric is mandatory). One vegetable (potatoes) and one fruit (melons) must also have their varieties spelled out. And if you label something as English, for example, you must be able to prove it is.
The most common mistakes are not displaying sufficiently accurate names and not displaying the best-before dates. Another inaccuracy would be labelling something as organic when it isn't in order to inflate the price.
On the labels of prepacked foods there are six basic requirements:
- The name of the food (not just the brand name). This may be a customary name, like shepherd's pie, or what is known as a 'reserved' description, such as 'burger'. What about lasagne? "There are no hard and fast rules but it may evolve into a customary name," says Thomas, "but the name must be sufficiently detailed to make it clear just what the food is and must include any treatments it has had, such as being dried, cured or frozen."
- The manufacturer's name and address
- The minimum durability of the product. Retailers are held responsible for shelf life so check for use-by dates and best-before dates
- A list of ingredients must be on the pack, with the highest listed first. If the pack contains a named food, such as chicken curry, then manufacturers have to declare what percentage of it is chicken.
- There must be instructions for storage and/or cooking
- Place of production, if it would be otherwise misleading. A sweet and sour dish, for example, may declare 'Made in the UK'.
There are numerous other rules that may apply. If a foodstuff is claimed as 'low fat', then there should be a nutritional panel. If artificial sweeteners are used, or ingredients which may trigger common allergic reactions, such as nuts, they must also be stated. In addition, there are specific requirements for products such as meat, fish, honey and jam.
For most retailers who deal with conventional suppliers and wholesalers, there should be no problems. "Retailers are liable for whatever they sell but, by and large, we would go after the labellers," says Thomas. "And for mislabelling they can be fined up to £5,000 or even spend six months in prison."
What's in a name?
Potatoes commonly sold in shops today come in many varieties. Maris Peer, Sante, Nadine, Saxon, Estima, Cara and Pentland Dell, for example, are all white varieties. Add in other varieties such as Desiree, Maris Piper, Charlotte and Jersey Royals and you begin to wonder why the spud often gets the label 'humble'.
Retailers, observes the Food Standards Agency, are increasingly adding different varieties to their offerings. With variety comes a difference in price, as much as 40% in some cases.
The FSA decided to check up on this increase of choice and prices a couple of years ago. The results were interesting, especially since potatoes on retail sale are required by law to be labelled with the name of the variety. In the FSA's survey, more than a third of retailers got it wrong.
Out of 294 potato samples taken:
33% were wrongly labelled
17% were not the variety they claimed to be
16% were not labelled with sufficient information.
Given the foregoing statistics it is safe to assume that few retailers will know that the FSA has funded research to develop a DNA testing method. The resulting database includes profiles for 98 different potato types.
Of the potatoes sampled, King Edwards were the most likely to be mislabelled (most were actually the Ambo variety).
Unfortunately, nearly all of the incorrectly labelled samples came from smaller, independent retailers, fruit & veg shops and stalls and wholesalers.
Potatoes excited the surveyors for several reasons, some of them obvious. Spuds account for about 17% of total retail fruit and veg sales and King Edward varieties sell for between £30-40 per tonne more than the Ambo variety, which is commonly used as a 'pretender'.
Fruit and veg rules
Most fruit and veg must be sold by weight, usually net weight. However, there are a few exceptions. Vegetables such as asparagus, spring onions, parsley and carrots can be sold by the bunch.
Soft fruits can be sold in punnets. They must be sold by net weight and the weight must be known to the buyer before payment is made.
Some produce may also be sold by number or individually. These include apples, apricots, bananas, celery, lettuces, lemons, limes, nectarines, onions, pineapples, soft citrus fruit and tomatoes (and quite a few others).
Prepacked potatoes must be in one of the following quantities: 500g, 1kg, 1.5kg, 2kg, 2.5kg or a multiple of 2.5kg up to 25kg. There is also an exception. If all the potatoes in the pack each weigh more than 175g, then the pack can be marked with the number of potatoes.
Both loose and prepacked fruit and veg must be labelled with the name of the food (and potatoes and melons must be labelled with their variety - for example, Maris Piper or Honeydew).
If the food has been treated with ionising radiation this must be declared.
Prepacked fruit and veg must also be marked with net weights.
Some additional requirements that apply to some fruits and vegetables include declaration of their class and country of origin; waxed fruit must be labelled as such; preservatives in dried fruit or salads must be spelled out; and organic produce must be certified by an approved body such as the Soil Association.
The price is right
Masilamany Arulendarn, known as Arul, has a large independent store in South Ockenden in Essex. As his store is more than 3,000sq ft, he is obliged by law to display unit pricing, as the supermarkets must do, so that customers can compare prices between brands in order to make informed decisions.
Arul has had to make the changes manually recently since his new computer system has failed him. "We have to work out how much something costs per 100g, or 100ml, say."
Trading standards officers can show up at the slightest provocation. One of Arul's customers complained to the local TSO because her receipt showed the VAT element of the transaction. Arul says: "She told me, 'I'm a pensioner, I don't pay taxes', and reported me."
The TSOs were quite happy with his procedures, but he changed his till settings so that VAT doesn't show.
So far, retailers under 3,000sq ft are exempt from unit pricing, thanks to considerable lobbying by the Association of Convenience Stores. However, in 2002 the DTI published a consultation document on a European Directive which sets out rules on how prices should be displayed in shops, including unit pricing. It is still in the pipeline.