A consuming interest in the food-labelling debate

Much has been written about consumers demanding more information on food packaging. But the issue is yet to have an impact upon the packaging itself.

It used to be the environment. Now nutritional information is the hot issue in food packaging. If we were to believe the general media, food companies are scrambling over one another to provide the most comprehensive nutritional information on their packaging.

CJD and a swathe of other recent revelations have made customers more suspicious of exactly what they are eating and so more detailed information is being demanded.

In reality, design groups handling food packaging say that, like the environmental concerns that went before them, the nutrition issue has only had a small impact.

In an era of fierce competition in the sector, clients have more pressing things to concern themselves with, they say.

“Pressure groups have been canvassing for a long time for clearer nutritional information, but the legislation only requires fairly basic information. Clients can get away without giving much information and will continue to get away with it until legislation is stepped up,” says Siebert Head sales and marketing director Satka Gidda.

Legislation has changed little since the Labelling of Food Regulations, completed in 1973. Any subsequent changes have done little more than bring together existing strands of food-labelling legislation. The main thrust of current legislation is that the pack’s ingredients must be listed in order of quantity (including additives), a “best before” date and any special storage conditions (see table). Any additional information given is on a voluntary basis.

“I haven’t noticed any real change in any of our clients’ briefs in the last 15 years. They [environmental and nutritional concerns] usually amount to extra costs and give the designers less freedom which can weaken the brand. So its not really an issue for designers,” adds Gidda.

PI Design business development director Chantal Bordet agrees: “[Nutritional labelling] is the sort of thing people talk about, but it is still very rare to see it in a brief. There are more critical issues to look at, such as exports. Creating cross-border brands, innovations such as multipacks and targeting individual cultures are more pressing than labelling.”

Bordet says a lack of innovation in the food sector is also to blame. Rather than differentiating their brands through product development, clients have largely chosen to drive growth through marketing. Brand stretch and umbrella brands are more effective than more detailed nutritional labelling, she says.

Meanwhile, Design Bridge client services manager Jill Marshall says in some ways the emphasis on nutritional information is declining as clients seek to avoid information overload.

“There are so many initiatives competing for back of pack that we are told to keep information to a minimum, and that includes nutritional details,” she says.

Marshall agrees the customer makes the rules, but says that, in the main, they are more interested in offers or user-friendliness than nutritional information.

Even a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food spokesman admits that, as legislation stands, manufacturers are required to give very little information.

“A few years ago, it was quite simple. You got your various ingredients from the grocers and knew where you stood. Food is now much more complicated. Frozen lasagne is far more complicated to label than the raw ingredients,” says the spokesman. MAFF is the Government body officially responsible for food labelling legislation. This responsibility will fall to the Food Standards Agency, which will go live when MAFF drops its food remit in 1999.

Many in the industry feel legislation has failed to keep apace with changes in the market.

But there is a sense that some of the hype is starting to translate into more detailed nutritional labelling, albeit in a limited way.

Institute of Grocery Distribution media communications manager Jane Whiteley says there have been a lot of subtle changes to packaging over the years.

“Own-label packaging is completely up-to-date, providing loads of information. It is taking a little longer for branded packaging because it evolves over a much longer term,” says Whiteley.

The IGD has just drawn up a set of voluntary guidelines which include the recommendation that packaged food and drink products give consistent and clear details of the fat and calorie content per serving. They also recommend giving guidelines for daily amounts for fat and calories.

So far more than ten industry leaders have expressed an interest in adopting some of these guidelines. They include Nestlé, Mars, Heinz, Safeway, Sainsbury’s, Somerfield and Tesco.

New legislation is also on the horizon. In 2000 Britain will incorporate EU legislation dictating that the percentages of the ingredients are also contained on the packaging. A MAFF spokesman says a number of companies have already signed up in advance of the legislation’s implementation.

Meanwhile, Design Bridge’s Marshall says the labelling issue has filtered through to briefs from Nestlé and Van Den Bergh Foods, which has upped the number of nutritional categories contained on the back of some packs from four to eight in recent months.

But, despite the general perception created by pressure groups and the media, nutritional labelling is not yet a serious consideration for packaging designers.

And are things really likely to change much in the future? The compulsory addition of ingredient percentages to packaging in 2000 will have little impact on their design. Meanwhile, though a number of food companies may have expressed interest in the IGD’s guidelines, there is a big jump to actually implementing them.

With labelling space at a premium, it is difficult to see how all but a few brands, relying on nutritional content as their unique selling proposition, will volunteer to clutter their labels with nutritional information.

The task of implementing the changes will fall to the Food Standards Agency when it goes live in 1999. Tough legislation would be a good way for the FSA to mark its entrance and let the food industry know it means business.

Food Labelling Regulations 1996

The regulations drew together elements of existing food-labelling legislation. It requires:

pre-packed foods, including fresh meat, to be labelled with a name;

a list of ingredients (including additives);

a ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date;

any special conditions of storage or use;

the name and address of the manufacturer, packer or European Commission seller;

the place of origin (if its omission would mislead);

instructions for use (if appropriate use of the food would be difficult without them).

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