Few people take the time to read all of the information on a food packet. But everything that is displayed on a food product label is there for a particular reason, with multiple pieces of legislation in place to ensure that consumers are given all the information they might need before purchasing a product.
If you work as part of a food business that produces packaged food, you need to ensure that you’re including all of the necessary information on your packing and labels in order to comply with food labelling laws. In this article, we cover all of the legal labelling requirements and explain why this information is so important.
Food labelling refers to the way that food products for sale are packaged with information about their contents. This food product label can include nutritional information, ingredients, allergen warnings and instructions for how the product should be stored and when it needs to be consumed.
Food packaging labelling is necessary to give consumers information on what they’re eating, offer warnings for ingredients that may cause allergic reactions, and ensure that they don’t eat a product after it has gone out of date. The contents of food product labels are controlled by law, meaning that any business manufacturing or selling packaged food needs to ensure that they include all the necessary information.
Packed food products are legally required by UK food labelling regulations to include several different pieces of information on their labels. Below are all the elements that need to be included.
All packaged food products need to have their name on them to let the consumer know what it is that they’re purchasing. If the product is a single ingredient then this will just be the ingredient name, or the product might have a branded name.
If a product’s name doesn’t give enough information as to what it actually is, a description is also required to let the consumer know what they are buying. For example, a packet of biscuits may be labelled ‘custard creams’, but a description of what the product actually is would be needed underneath this name, eg: plain biscuits sandwiched around a custard-flavoured centre.
There are some food names that are controlled by certain standards to ensure that consumers aren’t misled by what is actually involved. More information on this can be found on the Gov.uk website.
The expiration date of a food product is usually referred to as a ‘use by’ date. This has to be displayed on labelling for food products to let the consumer know when the product stops being safe to eat, and is usually found on perishable products and food with a short shelf life, such as meat, cheese, milk and ready-made meals.
Non-perishable and long-life food may have a ‘use by’ date, but is more likely to have a ‘best before’ date instead. This tells you the time within which the food will be of its best quality. Most food products are perfectly safe to eat after their ‘best before’ date has passed, this date is just used by the manufacturer to say that the product may not be the same quality as it was when it was purchased.
In some cases, a product’s ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date may be stamped onto the packaging itself (like a tin can), but in most scenarios, these dates need to be included on the label.
Warnings or declarations are needed on food packaging to indicate the presence of allergens. This is an incredibly important part of food label requirements, as it allows allergy sufferers to avoid consuming anything that might cause them serious harm.
Fourteen common allergens are required to be declared to customers by food law. These are:
These allergens are often marked in bold on the ingredients list or highlighted underneath the ingredients in a format such as ‘Contains milk and traces of gluten’. A food package label might also include a warning that the product has been made in an environment where other allergens are present and list these.
As well as allergen warnings, there are other ingredients that food label requirements state must be displayed on product packaging. You can find this list, and the wording you must use to indicate that these ingredients are present, on the Gov.uk website.
Since 2016, it has been a legal requirement for food labels on most pre-packaged food to contain nutritional information to give the consumer more of an insight into what they’re eating. This allows them to make healthier choices and also understand the nutritional value of what they’re eating.
The nutritional information must include:
It must be presented in the above order.
The net quantity of a food product is the actual weight of the product without any of its packaging. This needs to be displayed on a food product label so that the consumer knows how much of the product they’re actually getting when they buy it.
An ingredients list is another key part of the information required by food labelling laws if a product contains two or more ingredients. This lets the consumer know what the product they’re buying actually contains and also includes allergen information, as we’ve previously mentioned.
Ingredients must be listed on food and drink labels in order of weight from heaviest to lightest, with the main ingredient listed first.
You should also include the percentage of the product that an ingredient makes up in certain contexts, to let the consumer know how much of the ingredient is present. This is required when:
As previously discussed, any allergens included in an ingredient list should be marked in bold or a different colour to make them easier to identify.
It is mandatory for some prepacked products to include their place or country of origin on the label. This is only required in cases where a consumer might be misled about the origin of the product if this wasn’t specified, such as there being a location in the name (like greek yoghurt) or the packaging has an image that of a particular location.
The following foods are legally required to show their place or origin on the packaging:
A food product label can include the place or origin even if it isn’t mandatory. In most cases this will just be the country of origin, but if the name or packaging of the product is misleading then the area of the country needs to be included as well.
In the cases of errors or hazards identified after a food product has been manufactured, this product may need to be recalled using its lot number. A lot number can be used to determine when a product was made or packaged and what batch this was done in, allowing manufacturers to trace potential faults.
All food labels must have either the product’s lot number on, or the date that the product was made if there is only one batch produced a day.
Storing a food product correctly helps it to last longer and can protect the consumer by stopping it from going off, which is why storage advice is required as part of packaging information. This often just involves telling the consumer whether the products need to be stored in a fridge, freezer or cupboard space.
Storage advice may also give instructions for freezing and defrosting, which is important for products that can be frozen to make them last longer. The label may also share information on how long a product should last or be left open when stored in certain ways, such as needing to be eaten within 24 hours after opening, or only lasting for three days if stored in the fridge.
In cases where a food product needs to be cooked before eating, the labelling on food packaging should include basic cooking instructions. This helps the consumer to know the best way to prepare the product before eating so they can enjoy it at the quality the manufacturer intended, or gives advice on how long to cook a product to ensure that it is safe to eat.
Some food labels may include a serving suggestion or recipe for the product, but this isn’t a mandatory part of the food labelling regulations.
Finally, if the food product is being sold in Great Britain then it needs to include the name and address of the business that is responsible for putting all of this information on the food label. If this business is outside of the UK or EU, the importer’s name and address should be included instead.
One of the key reasons why food labelling is important is because it ensures that food businesses comply with relevant food labelling laws. In England, this is controlled by The Food Information Regulations 2014 and the EU Provision of Food Information to Consumers Regulation (Regulation (EU) 1169/2011). Natasha's Law is another new piece of legislation that specifically requires allergen information to be on certain food labels.
It is important for food businesses to comply with these regulations, as they potentially face legal action and fines if they do not, which could lead to the end of their business. They also avoid any risk of being sued by customers for failing to label ingredients in a product correctly, which again helps to protect the business and its reputation.
Correctly labelling food is also important in keeping consumers safe by ensuring that they can make informed decisions about eating products that won’t include harmful ingredients. This is particularly important for allergy sufferers, but also people with certain intolerances or those who want to avoid certain ingredients to stay healthy.
Nutritional information is included on food labels because it gives the consumer information about key nutrients that may impact their health. This helps people to stick to recommended limits for things like salt and sugar and also makes it easier to get an idea of whether you’re eating enough calories every day.
A ‘use by’ date on a food label is the last date that you can eat a food product before it becomes unsafe. It’s not to be confused with a ‘best before’ date, which indicates a time when the quality of a product may decrease but it remains safe to eat, and should always be checked before you open or consume packaged food.
On a food label, ingredients in a product that weighs the most are listed first, and the list goes on in descending order by weight. This helps the reader see which ingredients are most present in a food product and the rough percentage of the product that they make up.
Food labels and packaging might be discarded the moment a product is purchased in some cases, but the information on them is still incredibly important. Understanding what you need to include in labelling on food packaging is essential for anyone working as part of a business that sells or manufactures packaged or pre-packed food products, particularly in light of the most recent legislation that has been brought in regarding the labelling of allergens.
If you’d like to find out more about food labelling requirements, we cover this topic and more in our ‘Legislation Relating to the Service of Food and Beverages’ online course, suitable for anyone working in the hospitality and food manufacturing sectors.