Fresh, natural guidance gives clarity to industry

By Owen Warnock

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Law, Proposal

FSA guidance on terms like 'fresh', 'natural' and 'pure' helps protect responsible businesses against unscrupulous competition. But labelling that does not meet guidance in full would still be legal if it does not mislead consumers.

In late 2007, the FSA issued proposed guidelines on the use in food labelling of a wide variety of phrases, including terms such as 'premium' and 'best'.

The proposals stemmed from a review of existing guidance on terms such as 'fresh', 'natural' and 'pure'. In addition to clarifying and improving that long-standing guidance, there was a proposal to introduce similar detailed guidance on the use of much looser terms such as 'premium', 'finest', 'quality' and 'best'.

The proposed guidance on these was very vague, with the main suggested criterion for each of them being that high level of quality control had to be exercised.

Since most food manufacturers exercise a very high level of quality control on all products, even those that are not top of the range, the guidance seemed wholly inappropriate. In my view the proposed guidance also went well beyond what is required by labelling law. Eversheds responded to the consultation opposing this additional guidance.

These views, which were also the views of other key players in the industry such as the British Retail Consortium and the Food and Drink Federation, have led to this proposed new guidance being dropped.

Instead, the new guidance merely indicates that when one of these top of the range claims is made, "it would be advantageous if manufacturers and retailers could help consumers to understand why a claim of a high level of overall quality is justified and why the particular term is use".

A similar approach has been adopted in relation to proposed guidance on the words 'traditional style' and 'selected', where suggested detailed advice has now been reduced merely to a general statement that these phrases are not easy to understand and that their use should be avoided.

The overall outcome is that the industry now has some usefully updated and clarified guidance on some of the key terms used in describing food which are vulnerable to misuse and to being misunderstood - such as 'natural' and 'pure'. This in turn helps to protect responsible businesses in the sector against unscrupulous competition.

It is worth remembering that this document is no more than guidance. Ultimately what food businesses can say on labels is governed by the law, where the test is whether a reasonably circumspect and well-informed consumer would be likely to be misled.

From time to time I advise clients that although the presentation they propose for a product does not meet the FSA Guidance in full, the labelling is in my view still legal because it is not likely to mislead the public.

Owen Warnock is a senior partner and food law specialist at international law firm Eversheds.

Related topics: Regulation & Safety