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Making food labelling easier to digest

'People want more information about what they eat'

Photo: ©FAO/Giuseppe Bizzarri
It can be confusing for consumers when there are many kinds of labels in the market. This undermines consumer confidence in the label.

A new book on food labelling aims to help producers mark goods more accurately and assist shoppers in making the healthiest choices. FAO nutritionist Janice Albert, editor of Innovations in Food Labelling, tells us more in this Q&A interview.

Where did the idea for this book come from?

In recent years we've seen an increase in people wanting more information about the health, safety and environmental characteristics of the food they eat, from the nutritional content and presence of allergens to the ways in which products are grown and processed. In turn, food producers are putting a greater focus on the consumers' wants and needs, so labels are becoming increasingly important.

Since FAO deals directly with these producers, it's useful for us to understand how we can help them use labels effectively and appropriately. The nutrition and consumer protection division is looking at the ways in which labels could be used in conjunction with other forms of consumer information to raise consumers' awareness about nutrition. We are also concerned with safe handling of food and international standards.

What kind of information do you find on a food label?

You'll normally find a list of ingredients and quantities, some type of date marking, instructions about how to prepare or preserve the food and contact information for the producer. A number of countries also have labels with information about the nutrient contents.

Who will benefit from the information in this book?

The book covers information from the evolution of food labelling to international trade agreements, nutritional labelling, allergies and food labels that address the health, environmental and social interests of particular consumers, among other topics. As such, we believe it's a useful reference guide for food regulatory agencies, food law experts and professionals in the food industry who are responsible for labelling. Consumer and environmental associations with an interest in food labelling would also find this book very useful. In the long run, the average grocery shopper will benefit as well - when people who work in the food industry and regulators better understand the issues, they will in turn create more credible and easier-to-read labelling for consumers.

What is the benefit of food labelling?

Having clear labels helps people to compare and understand the differences between food products. For example, two breakfast cereals may look alike, but one may contain a lot of fibre, another a lot of sugar so they are actually different in terms of nutritional value. Labels can also protect people who have particular health risks. You may not be able to tell, for example, that a product contains nuts or large quantities of saturated fat just by looking at it, but for someone who has severe nut allergies or heart disease, this is critical information.

People need information about how to prepare foods properly to ensure that they are eating safe foods. Labels also help people make choices that reflect their beliefs, like choosing "fair trade" products or products that are part of a cultural heritage.

Labelling is also important for food producers who want to protect the name and reputation of their products. For centuries in Europe, cheeses and wines have had names that are linked to certain geographic areas, like "Champagne", for example. Now producers of tea, coffee and other products are doing this in Asia and Latin America.

How do consumers know that the labels they are reading are truthful and accurate?

This is definitely a challenge for governments, who must ensure that product information is not misleading. There are organizations that independently certify the accuracy of labels and governments can impose legal penalties for false labels. 

Are consumers aware of the benefits of food labelling? Do they understand how to read them?
People complain about the difficulty in understanding complicated food labels, so the potential benefits may not be realized. Efforts are being made to simplify labels and make them easy to read and understand. 

It's also confusing for consumers when there are many kinds of labels in the market and this undermines consumer confidence in the label. Ideally, we need to harmonize labelling regulations so that product information is consistent, making it easier for people to understand. With global trade, consumers are seeing labels from other countries that may or may not be understood or relevant to them.

It takes time and education for the public to understand and use labels but with a little education they can become a normal part of food purchasing.  

What are some of the latest trends in food labelling that can be found in the book?

One of the fastest-growing trends we discuss is the evolution of organic labelling. Organic labels began as a private sector initiative and there are still private organizations that certify that a product was produced with organic methods. However, in some countries and regions, government agencies have produced a label that organic producers can use.

Eco-labelling is another trend in voluntary labelling. Some people are willing to pay more for products that are grown with minimal negative impact on the environment. In this case, there are market incentives for producers who follow environmentally sound practices. In the book we explain the development of eco-labels in the context of marine fisheries, which is important because fish stocks are being depleted and cannot be sustained over time.

The book talks about the need for standards and systems that make it possible to certify that a producer really followed the methods that they claim to follow when they produced the food. 

Do manufacturers support food labelling?

When it's voluntary labelling as part of marketing, yes, because it helps them sell products and it is good for their image. Companies can be more resistant to mandatory labels, where they are required to state ingredients and quantities or other traits that might not be attractive to customers.

Innovations in Food Labelling is available from Woodhead Publishing Limited, by clicking here.

—28 January 2010