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Changes in labelling law - that's all clear then?

By: Justin Wright Date: 3 November 2016
Category: Article

In his latest article for Feast Norfolk magazine, Justin Wright of our food and drink team, says that even enthusiastic Leavers may be pleased to welcome new EU labelling laws.

We now know that the government intends to trigger the two year process by which Britain will leave the EU next spring – but even as we take another step towards the brave new post-EU world, our food producers are having to embrace another Brussels-determined change in the way that food is labelled.

In December of this year, the European Commission’s mandatory Food Information for Consumers regulations are due to be fully implemented. Amongst other measures, these will change the way that nutritional information is presented, as well as introducing a more open approach to information about allergens and the origin of ingredients (for example, the country of origin of most meat products).

Of course, until the Article 50 negotiations are concluded, we are still members of the EU. That means that producers still have to abide by EU law, and so whatever the eventual outcome of EU trade negotiations, producers will have another set of regulatory hoops to jump through before the end of the year.

Theresa May has indicated that the plan is to enshrine all existing EU law into British law at the point we exit the EU – and that only after then will there be a process of working through all that legislation to work out what will be kept, what will be amended, and what might be repealed.

Producers might welcome that decision, as it does at least give an element of certainty in the short to medium term. Although there was much gnashing of teeth within the industry about EU labelling regulations when they first came in, there is now an acceptance that they are a necessary evil, and a feeling that abandoning them now would be a backwards step.

A pragmatic acceptance of current EU laws, which seem to work well, is therefore to be welcomed.

Of course, those producers who want to sell their goods in the new 27 member EU will have to abide by EU regulations post-Brexit anyway, so the more that EU and UK laws are in harmony, the simpler it will be.

The wider question about whether nutritional labelling of foods actually works when it comes to encouraging people to have a healthier diet, is rather more up for debate.

My own view is that legislation alone cannot effectively change people’s behaviour. We already have the ‘traffic light’ system of labelling for nutritional information, and research repeatedly shows that many consumers are still confused about what is in the foods they buy, particularly processed products where certain sugars and fats naturally occur in the raw materials and are not added.

Overcoming that confusion and changing behaviour requires engagement with and education of consumers, and that in turn requires a commitment from farmers and food producers.

With so much change on the horizon, the food industry needs certainty in as many areas as possible, so that it can start to plan effectively for the long-term. So the industry will be hoping that in the run up to Brexit and beyond, politicians don’t impose change for change’s sake.
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