Labelling: Northern Ireland

The Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland is responsible for policy on general food labelling, food standards and nutrition labelling.

Labelling rules

Falsely describing, advertising or presenting food is an offence, and there are a number of laws that help protect consumers against dishonest labelling and misdescription.

Consumers should be able to be confident with their choice of foods and be able to buy according to their particular requirements, be it for diet and health, personal taste and preferences, or cost. They want to be able to make comparisons with similar products, knowing the information on the label is correct.

They have a right to expect that the food bought matches the description given on the label and that they get what they pay for.

Part of the Food Standards Agency's role is to help prevent mislabelling or misdescription of foods. Mislabelling does not normally give rise to safety issues; nevertheless, when done deliberately it constitutes the crime of fraud.

In some cases, the names of foods we buy are protected by law, and must comply with certain compositional regulations.

In other cases, such as fish fingers, there may be no such standards, but the food still needs to be described accurately and should not be misleading.

Food authenticity is all about whether a food matches its description. If food is misdescribed, not only is the consumer being deceived, but it can also create unfair competition with the honest manufacturer or trader. The description of food refers to the information given as to its name, its ingredients, its origin or processes undergone.

Misdescription in itself is nothing new. Food fraud has been around for a very long time – probably as long as food itself has been sold.

In the past, basic foods such as flour, spices and beer were adulterated with cheaper ingredients. Nowadays misdescription can take many forms:

Not having the necessary composition for a legal name – in order to be called 'chocolate', for example, the food must have a certain amount of cocoa solids. Similarly, in order to be called a 'sausage', it must have certain amount of meat in it.

Substitution with cheaper ingredients – adding low cost ingredients to a more expensive product, such as diluting olive oil with vegetables oils.

Extending a food – perhaps with water or other fillers, such as adding water to orange juice, or offal to meat products and not declaring it.

Incorrect origin – incorrectly labelling the true origin of the food or ingredients in terms of:

  • animal species – misdescribing the meat species in a product or not declaring other meat present
  • plant variety – adding cheaper varieties to a premium rice such as Basmati
  • geographical origin or country – giving the incorrect country or floral origin of a honey or region for a wine
  • Incorrect or failure to describe a process or treatment – not declaring if food has been irradiated or previously frozen, or the use of mechanically separated meat (MSM)

Incorrect quantitative declaration – giving the wrong amount of an ingredient e.g. declaring the wrong amount of meat in burger

Legally, there are a number of areas that regulate labelling, which are described below.

The Food Labelling Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1996

This requires food to be marked or labelled with certain requirements such as:

  • the name of the food
  • a list of ingredients (including food allergens)
  • the amount of an ingredient which is named or associated with the food
  • an appropriate durability indication (e.g. 'best before' or 'use by')
  • any special storage conditions or instructions for use
  • the name and address of the manufacturer, packer or retailer
  • the place of origin (where failure to do so might mislead)

Food compositional legislation

There are more detailed compositional and labelling rules for certain foods, including:

  • bread and flour
  • cocoa and chocolate
  • soluble coffee
  • evaporated and dried milk
  • fruit juice
  • honey
  • infant formula
  • jams
  • meat products: sausages, burgers and pies
  • natural mineral waters
  • spreadable fats
  • sugars

European marketing standards

These define what can be properly described as:

  • canned sardines and tuna
  • olive oil
  • alcoholic spirit drinks: whisky, gin, and so on
  • eggs in shell
  • organic food
  • fresh fruits and vegetables
  • foods of designated geographic indication or origin, such as Parma ham, West Country Cheddar

Surveillance and research

Occasionally, misdescription can affect your health or safety. People who cannot eat certain foods because they are intolerant or allergic to them may suffer severe or life-threatening reactions.

It makes it much more difficult to avoid these foods if they have incorrect or inaccurate labels. A contaminated product could also cause illness if it was deliberately being passed off as authentic.

The FSA works with Defra on a programme of surveillance specifically devoted to food authenticity, which involves carrying out ad hoc checks to identify adulteration and to make sure the contents are described correctly on the label (misdescription).

We also have a research programme devoted to developing new methods and techniques to support the surveillance programme.

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