Businesses selling food and drink are already facing a raft of new allergen and nutritional labelling requirements, and environmental labels could be next. Nick Hughes reports.
Labelling is a hot topic for the food and drink sector right now. To get a true sense of the current level of policy flux it’s worth reeling off the list of recent, forthcoming and potential future changes to labelling legislation in England and the devolved administrations.
First up are new rules on labelling pre-packed foods for direct sale (PPDS) – such as those sold via food-to-go outlets like Pret and Itsu – that came into force in October in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and require businesses to label all ingredients on PPDS products with the allergens emphasised.
Further rules could soon be introduced for precautionary allergen labels (PALs) after the Food Standards Agency (FSA) launched a consultation last week on the use of PALs, which are often presented in the form of “may contain” advice on food packaging and menus.
On nutrition, hospitality businesses with 250 or more employees will have to provide calorie information to customers at the point of choice at a wide range of English venues including online from April 1st. Scotland is also due to consult on introducing mandatory calorie labelling of its own.
A consultation on requiring calorie labelling for alcoholic drinks is due to be launched shortly, while the government response to its consultation on potential changes to front-of-pack nutritional labelling for packaged foods is scheduled to be published in the next few weeks and will include next steps and policy options.
Momentum is also building behind environmental and ethical labelling – a call for evidence on providing consumer information on animal welfare standards closed last week, while the Environment Agency recently launched a project that will “standardise metrics for environmental performance of the food and drink sector”. Big foodservice chains have been encouraged to get involved.
All of this could feel overwhelming for foodservice and hospitality businesses still battling through the coronavirus pandemic – a point made by UKHospitality policy director Jim Cathcart at last week’s Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum on the future of food labelling in the UK.
In the 18 months from April 2020 hospitality lost over two thirds of its normal revenue, 10% of its businesses failed and headcount fell by almost 30%. Cathcart noted that costs are still “running hot” with venues facing soaring utility bills and higher costs for food and drink. Businesses have also built up billions of pounds in sector debt, including substantial levels of rent debt that landlords won’t defer forever, while temporary cuts to business rates and VAT are due to revert to their normal rates come the end of March.
It’s in this context that Cathcart revealed the trade body has made representations to ministers about delaying the introduction of the new calorie labelling regulations – which the government has previously estimated could cost businesses up to £305m over a 25-year period – or having an initial period in which enforcement measures are relaxed to take account of the practical, pandemic-related challenges still being faced by businesses.
The task of calculating calorie values for menu items on an ongoing basis would be substantial at the best of times; current market conditions make it even more of a challenge. Specifically, Cathcart explained that the issues impacting food supply chains present businesses with a significant headwind. When ingredient supplies are unpredictable it becomes much harder to plan menus in advance, yet keeping menus as standardised as possible is one of the ways businesses can minimise the ongoing cost of calorie labelling.
Elsewhere, the new rules on PPDS are causing particular headaches for independent catering businesses, according to Jenny Morris, food safety advisor at the Nationwide Caterers Association. Speaking at the Westminster forum, Morris said that unlike manufacturers who purchase ingredients to a fixed specification, small-scale caterers such as those that sell street food or cater for events, often buy ingredients based on market availability, price and seasonality. This variation in the type and specification of ingredients can make the task of providing full ingredient and allergen information complex and time consuming.
Morris also expressed concern about the recent surge in people selling food over the internet, including social media, and a potential lack of awareness among sole traders and small business owners over how these products should be labelled.
The FSA has initially advised local authorities to take a proportionate and risk-based approach to enforcing the PPDS regulations. “We are working with local authorities and businesses to understand their views on how implementation is proceeding over these early months,” FSA food hypersensitivity team leader Arvind Thandi told Footprint, adding that the agency will carry out a formal evaluation exercise in 2022 to gather data on how businesses have implemented the changes.
Mislabelling in an out of home setting presents very real health concerns – for those people with food allergies it can literally be a matter of life and death. Allergy UK CEO Carla Jones recognised recent efforts from businesses to improve the quality of allergen information, but noted how urgent issues continue to emerge around ingredients such as kiwi fruit, aubergine, chickpea and lentils, none of which feature on the list of 14 allergens covered by EU allergy law (since transferred into UK law) and therefore don’t currently have to be emphasised on ingredient labels.
The use of precautionary allergen information and labels (PALs) is another hot topic for the sector. A Footprint report from 2019 found that PALs were commonly used by food-to-go brands to communicate to customers that no guarantee can be given that any food product is entirely free of allergens.
The FSA is stepping up its action on PALs in an effort to give businesses and consumers more clarity on when their use is appropriate. Recent FSA studies have found that food hypersensitive consumers – people who live with food allergies, intolerances, or coeliac disease – appreciate precautionary allergen information or labelling when it clearly tells them about an unavoidable risk of allergen cross-contamination. But the agency said consumers can also be confused by the range of precautionary labelling statements on prepacked foods where the wording can differ between products and it may not be clear precisely what the risk is.
The new consultation will also seek views on the provision of precautionary allergen information for non-prepacked foods, for example meals served in restaurants, where precautionary information can be given verbally – but sometimes is not provided at all.
Also on the government’s radar, albeit at a more nascent stage of policy development, is the question of environmental and ethical labelling for food. This starts with the call for evidence on animal welfare labelling, but there is increasing interest within Defra over the development and adoption of third party ecolabels, such as the Foundation Earth scheme. Sarah Cunningham, team leader for food information to consumers at Defra, told the forum that there are “loads of interesting” eco-labelling schemes at the moment, although she cautioned over the risk of consumer confusion should such schemes continue to proliferate.
Cunningham revealed that Defra has commissioned research to better understand the eco-labelling landscape, including the challenges for businesses in adopting these labels and how they can be overcome. She stressed the importance of “robust data” underpinning eco-labelling schemes and said that while a simplified approach is appealing the data needs to be captured in a meaningful way.
To demonstrate the point, Claire Hughes, director of product and innovation at Sainsbury’s, highlighted research from the supermarket that found when labels are too simple customers think “you’re hiding something”. Hughes also flagged the challenges around picking through the vast quantities of environmental data that are available, adding that “I don’t think we’ll be able to wait for perfect data to help consumers make sustainable, healthy choices for their diet”.
Most experts agree that eco-labelling is a complicated subject, but it’s one being closely studied in Whitehall. For those businesses tasked with implementing government labelling policy, the latest wave of new requirements is unlikely to be the last.