Getting the message right on food labels

Food labelling rules are changing across Europe, and in Scotland strict new regulations are already partly in force – with the possibility of a criminal conviction and £5,000 fines for transgressions. What are the obligations of retailers and producers?

Ross Nicol
by Ross Nicol. Ross Nicol is a partner in the intellectual property and technology team at Maclay Murray & Spens LLP
What are the Food Information (Scotland) Regulations 2014?
The regulations are the Scottish form of legislation implementing EU rules on the provision of food information to consumers. There is similar albeit separate legislation for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The regulations introduce a number of changes to the current law regarding food labelling, such as increasing the amount of information which must be displayed on packaging, as well as prescribing the manner in which such information should be displayed.

What are the key changes to the current rules on food labelling?
Arguably the most important change is the allergen information which must now be displayed on all food labelling and/or made available to consumers when purchasing unpackaged food, such as in restaurants or cafes, as well as in some grocers. The regulations set out a list of fourteen allergens, including nuts, eggs, milk and shellfish, which must be clearly identified and highlighted on the food label if they are included in any form in the final product.
Businesses selling unpackaged food may choose to display the necessary information in a written form, such as on their menus. Alternatively, if the information is not presented to the consumers in this way, businesses should direct consumers to where the information can be acquired. This could be achieved through the use of signs directing customers to speak to members of staff about the ingredients used in the food sold.
The regulations also now require that the country of origin is stated on fresh, chilled and frozen meat products from sheep, pigs, goats and poultry.
A general requirement has been introduced regarding the use of clear and legible fonts on all food labelling. For example, the regulations set out prescribed minimum font sizes to be used, ranging from 0.9mm to 1.2mm depending on the overall size of the packaging.
Businesses will be required to display nutrition information on their food labelling which includes clear details of the energy, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugar, protein and salt content of food.
While these are some of the key changes introduced by the regulations it is not an exhaustive list and there are other changes that will impact businesses concerned in the manufacture and production of food.

When do the regulations become mandatory?
The staggered process of implementing the regulations started in December 2014. With the exception of the nutrition information requirement, which will become compulsory from December 2016, all of the requirements set out above are now in force.
As it will be compulsory to include nutrition declarations on all pre-packaged foods from December 2016, businesses should consider now how they tackle this new requirement, to ensure compliance by the enforcement date.

What are the penalties for failing to comply?
Failure to comply with the regulations is a criminal offence. Officers may choose to serve an improvement notice on a business that fails to comply with the regulations; however, there is no obligation on a local authority to serve an improvement notice before proceeding with criminal prosecutions. Convictions can result in fines of up to £5,000 being imposed.