15-point plan against misleading labelling and advertising

As long as misleading labelling is legal, companies will not change their ways. Therefore, these fraudulent practices must be prohibited. Self-invented seals of approval and voluntary commitments by industry will do nothing to help the situation. The only solution is to establish clear legal requirements for understandable product information. Legal loopholes must be closed, and companies must be required to provide the most important information on their packaging in understandable terms and formats. foodwatch has introduced a 15-point plan with necessary legal changes for making labels more honest.

1. Objective product information on the front of the package

The problem: Important product information is usually given on the back of food packages in fine print, while promotional content takes up most of the label, particularly on the front of the package. As a result, consumers are often misled by the information on the front labels.

The solution: The most important objective information about a food product must be easily readable and presented in a standard format. Promotional statements and pictures should not misrepresent the actual product characteristics  or production methods.

2. Easy-to-read mandatory information

The problem: For many people, especially those with poor eyesight, the mandatory information on food labels is barely legible. This is because the minimum font size required under EU law is just 1.2mm (and for small packaging, a mere 0.9mm, based on the height of the lower-case letter “x”). Legibility can also be reduced by a lack of contrast between the text colour and the background, or by narrow spacing between letters or lines. None of these factors are adequately defined by law.

The solution: All mandatory information must be clearly visible and legible. Legislators must adopt the criteria for user-friendly print media (font size, character/line spacing, colour contrast) recommended by senior citizens’ organisations  as a guideline for food and drink packaging.

3. Realistic product illustrations and names

The problem: The illustrations and names used on the front labels of packages often suggest inaccurate ingredient proportions  or include images of ingredients that are not even found in the product.

The solution: Any illustrations of a food product on its packaging must correspond to the actual food or beverage. Inaccurate images and “serving suggestions” must be prohibited. If images or statements are used for drawing attention to certain ingredients, the manufacturer must state, in a way that is clearly visible in this promotional content, what proportion (percentage) of the product the respective ingredient represents. In general, the proportion by weight should be specified for all listed ingredients.  

4. Comprehensive origin labelling

The problem: For the vast majority of food products, consumers are not given any information on the origin of the ingredients. In addition, terms like “native” and “regional” are not legally protected. As a result, producers are using them primarily as marketing tools, and the actual origin of the ingredients does not have to correspond to that which is advertised.

The solution: Manufacturers must be required to indicate the countries of origin for the main ingredients  of their products. Manufacturers should only be allowed to use origin claims in their advertising if the main ingredients actually come from the specified region and if the region of origin (e.g. in the case of Germany, a federal state or more specific region) is indicated for all ingredients. For products with ingredients from non-EU countries, the indication of country of origin is sufficient.

5. Understandable and legible nutrition information

The problem: Currently, food companies are allowed to hide the nutritional values of their products in the fine print on the back of the packaging. On front-of-pack GDA labels (for “Guideline Daily Amounts”), manufacturers use unrealistic portion sizes and misleading target guidelines to make the product look healthier than it actually is.

The solution: Consumers must be provided with easily understandable and clearly legible nutrition information on the front of the package so that they are able to compare products at a glance. In foodwatch’s opinion, the best food-labelling systems use colour coding – for example, traffic light labelling based on the original guidelines of the Food Standards Agency (FSA)  or the French five-colour NutriScore model (“5-C”). This type of labelling system should be mandatory.

6. Understandable declaration of food additives and flavourings – no misleading “clean labels”

The problem: The current system of labelling food flavourings and additives (E numbers) is mis-leading. Flavourings made from non-food sources are used for mimicking natural flavours, often without the consumer’s knowledge. Manufacturers are also permitted to use additives of ques-tionable safety. 
In addition, some manufacturers use a “clean label” (e.g. “no flavour enhancers”) to market their food products as being free of certain additives even though they still contain ingredients that have a very similar function or effect (e.g. yeast extract).

The solution: The use of food flavourings and additives must be transparent. In the ingredients list, any flavour derived from food according to EU food law should be declared as a “natural flavouring”, specifying the source material – and all other flavours must be declared as “non-food flavourings”.  All additives with potentially harmful health impacts should be prohibited. If a “clean label” is used for advertising the absence of certain substances (e.g. flavour enhancers and colours), then the manufacture should not be allowed to use substitute ingredients that have the same or similar effects.

7. Transparency regarding the use of ingredients of animal origin

The problem: Many foods are manufactured using ingredients, additives or processing aids of animal origin – without ensuring that this information is immediately obvious to consumers. Furthermore, the front-of-pack labels for meat and fish products do not always list all of the meats that the product contains. This situation diminishes consumers’ freedom of choice, particularly in cases of vegetarian, vegan or religious dietary requirements.

The solution: Any use of ingredients, additives or processing aids of animal origin must be declared on the package, specifying the respective species of animal. This rule should also apply to animal-derived ingredients in flavourings and to any known production-related impurities. Consumers must be provided with the information they need in order to completely avoid all foods and beverages of animal origin if they choose to do so. In addition, front-of-package labels for meat and fish products should always list all types of meat that the product contains, specifying the respective quantities as a percentage of the total weight.

8. Loophole-free labelling requirements for genetically modified plants and animals

The problem: Although the majority of European consumers reject the use of genetic engineering in agriculture, they have no way of knowing whether products like meat, milk or eggs come from animals that have been fed genetically modified animal feed.

The solution: Consumers must be able to decide for themselves whether or not their food purchases support the use of genetic engineering in agriculture. Products derived from animals fed with genetically modified feed ingredients should be labelled as such.

9. Transparency regarding production methods and imitation products

The problem: Terms like “traditional”, “natural” and “artisanal” are being used by many manu-facturers for describing ordinary industrial products in a misleading manner. Furthermore, cheap substitutes, such as imitation cheese, ham and prawn products, are often sold without adequate labelling.

The solution: Any advertising claims that make reference to production methods must be supported by concrete facts. Manufacturers should be prohibited from using terms like “traditional”, “natural” or “artisanal” for advertising industrially produced foods. The front-of-package label for products that contain imitation foods must use product names that enable the consumer to clearly recognise the fact that the ingredients differ from that of an authentic product.

10. Labelling of alcohol content resulting from production processes

The problem: In some cases, manufacturers are not required to declare that a food product contains alcohol. A beverage marketed as “alcohol free” is allowed to contain up to 0.5 per cent alcohol by volume.

The solution: If a product contains added alcohol and/or if alcohol is formed during the production process, the total resulting alcohol content must be declared. Products that contain even small amounts of alcohol should not be described as “alcohol free”.

11. Transparency regarding fill levels

The problem: Large packages with little content – this trick is being used for squeezing more money out of consumers. Currently, packages are allowed to contain up to 30 per cent air as a “guidance level”, but there are numerous exceptions to this rule.

The solution: In general, food packages should be filled to the maximum possible level. On the front of the package, manufacturers should be required to display not only the net quantity (weight or volume) of the contents but also the fill level of the package – for example, by indicating the height to which the package is filled, by using a window or clear packaging or by providing more detailed information on the package contents (e.g. the number of individually packed sweets in a bag).

12. Marketing ban for unhealthy children’s foods

The problem: Products that food companies market either directly to children or to parents as suitable for children are almost exclusively too sweet, too salty and too fatty. This contributes significantly to the wide-scale problem of unhealthy eating habits. An unhealthy, unbalanced diet is a major risk factor for the development of overweight, obesity and chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes.

The solution: Legislators must use the nutrient profile model  developed by the WHO Regional Office for Europe as the basis for restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy foods to and for children. Child-targeted marketing should only be permitted for foods that meet the nutrient criteria of the WHO model. Governments must stop allowing food companies to market unhealthy products as being suitable for children and to use cartoon characters and free toys for making these products more attractive to children.

13. No more misleading nutrition and health claims

The problem:

Nutrition and health claims are often misleading and not suitable for promoting a healthy, balanced diet. The EU allows companies to market unhealthy foods, such as sugary drinks and biscuits, using nutrition claims like “reduced sugar” and health claims like “contributes to the normal function of the immune system”. Under EU law such practices should actually be prohibited on the basis of so-called “nutrient profiles”, which the Commission was tasked with implementing by 2009. However, to date no such measures have been taken, owing to strong resistance from the food industry. Besides, some pending health claims that mainly refer to botanical substances are allowed to be used although their scientific evidence has not been approved at EU level. 

Additional information:
On 14 December 2012, the Community list of claims permitted under the EU Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation came into force. Since then, companies have only been allowed to use health claims that are approved by the EU. However, the decisive part of the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation has yet to be implemented: what types of products may be advertised with these claims? The EU was supposed to introduce so-called nutrient profiles by 2009 with the aim of defining the nutritional requirements that foods must meet in order to bear nutrition and health claims. However, these nutrient profiles have still not been introduced.


The solution:

It is high time that the EU adopts nutrient profiles as a requirement for advertising with health and nutrition claims. The use of health and nutrition claims should only be permitted for foods that meet the nutrient criteria of the WHO for balanced foods (so called WHO nutrient profile model). The use of all health and nutrition claims should be prohibited until the WHO nutrient profiles have come into effect. Health claims without the European Commission’s approval should not be used at all. The European Commission has to decide on the authorisation of all claims, including those that are still pending.

On 14 December 2012, the Community list of claims permitted under the EU Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation came into force. Since then, companies have only been allowed to use health claims that are approved by the EU. However, the decisive part of the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation has yet to be implemented: what types of products may be advertised with these claims? The EU was supposed to introduce so-called nutrient profiles by 2009 with the aim of defining the nutritional requirements that foods must meet in order to bear nutrition and health claims. However, these nutrient profiles have still not been introduced.

14. No more misleading food names

The problem: The names under which products are sold are often misleading. For example “cherry” tea that contains no cherries or “beef” soup that contains no beef. Either clear rules how to name the products in a way that consumers know what they buy are missing (for example in the Netherlands) or they are made under the influence of the food industry itself that does not pursue the consumers’ interests (for example in Germany and France).  

The solution: Binding guidelines for the naming of food products must be established by means of a transparent and democratic process. These guidelines should be based on consumer expectations.

15. Expanded rights of action and rights to information for consumer organisations

The problem: Not all misleading labelling and advertising practices can be prevented by means of labelling laws alone. Legal consumer fraud is made easier by the lack of rights to take legal action against laws.

The solution: Consumer organisations must be given the right to bring collective action against food legislation through a national and European right of action for associations. Consumer rights to information should no longer only apply to public authorities: companies must also be required to provide information about their products.

Last update January 21, 2019
International News
from France
18-04-2019 Alimentation et santé Suspension de l'additif E171. Et après ? Lire
from Germany
17-04-2019 Tierhaltung Ostereier stammen massenhaft von kranken Hühnern Mehr
from the netherlands
15-04-2019 Bestrijdingsmiddelen EU en kabinet gaan door met controversiële vergunningen omstreden bestrijdingsmiddelen Lees Meer