Making your mark – labelling food

Much of our food labelling policies emanate from Brussels, so what impact could Brexit have on food labelling?

Whether it concerns country of origin labelling for meat and milk or sugar content, food labelling has increased in prominence in the mind of consumers and policy makers. As much of our food labelling policies emanate from Brussels, this prompts the question of what impact a potential Brexit would have on our packaging and how it would change our relationship to food.

As well as having a role in voluntary systems, European legislation sets much of the mandatory requirements, such as country of origin, nutritional profiles, and presence of allergens in food products. Labelling such as the traffic light system can be set in the UK as a voluntary measure.

The way we label our food is meant to help customers reach informed decisions about the food that they consume. Yet evidence has suggested that customers are more confused by the current system of labelling rather than more informed. A study by the University of Birmingham found that, while the traffic light labelling was noted by customers, the system was considered “ambiguous” and led to information overload without any contextual knowledge. In fact, the European Commission has been criticised as “failing miserably” to create a system which helps customers make good, healthy choices.

There are also regulations in the EU system that shape how provenance can be used to promote products. Whereas country of origin labelling helps illustrate where the product comes from, EU members countries cannot use public funds to actively promote their own country’s products over other member states’ under state aid rules. Despite the rhetoric from Defra about the quality of British products, national assurance schemes, such as Red Tractor, Lion and QMS are intend to inform customers of the traceability, sustainability, and quality of a product, but they must be funded by industry rather than taxpayer.

Should Britain leave the European Union it would lead to a fundamental shift in the landscape within the food industry. Campaigners have called for clearer labelling –be it about the number of teaspoons of sugar in products or the exercise needed to burn of calories – which currently needs to go through Brussels. If we left the Union, the way we label food could be changed much more easily.

Image source: Jamie Oliver.com

Image source: Jamie Oliver.com

The Government would also be freer to back provenance assurance schemes and to promote British produce much more aggressively vis-à-vis the remaining EU member states. All this would create a wholly new system in Britain. Judging by current government policy, there is little doubt that British produce would be given a more prominent place in promotions and deals – beyond mere assurance of quality. Further, should campaigners such as Jamie Oliver be successful, our government would be free to introduce mandatory traffic light system labelling and could support the inclusion of sugar teaspoons.

Labelling could suddenly depart from the rest of Europe. Businesses operating in the UK and on the continent would have to navigate two sets of regulations. Food manufacturers would potentially have to drastically adjust their packaging to suit an out-of-EU Britain, rather than to comply with exceptions on a voluntary basis.

An exit from the EU would entail a considerable shift in how we relate to our food and how we package it. In some instances the European Commission has acted as a break on controversial labelling, and should this break be removed, industry could be faced with an avalanche of campaigners looking to change food packaging.