Food Labelling and food advertising

What is a food label, and why is it needed?

A food label refers to the legally required nutritional or consumer safety information about the food product. It is there for safety and suitability reasons. The required information includes the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP), the ingredients, allergens, cooking requirements, and use-by dates as well as other relevant information (see “What’s on a food label” fact sheet). The food label is usually in the minority of space available.

The intent of food labels is to inform people of safety information and the nutrient content of the food eg, whether it contains allergens, the level of salt or sugar etc. This allows consumers to make informed choices for their diet.

The content of these labels is governed by the Food Standards Code, administered by the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) and developed jointly between New Zealand and Australia by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). The Code also specifies claims or statements that can and can’t accompany food. There are some exceptions where a full label is not required (see below).

What about the advertising on a food package?

Most of the space on a food package is likely to be used for branding, advertising or marketing purposes. It is up to the consumer to determine the significance of advertising/brand names.

Advertising or marketing material must comply with the Fair Trading Act (1986) and the Food Act (1981) and not mislead consumers about the benefits of consuming the product. The Fair Trading Act prohibits misleading and deceptive conduct, false representations and unfair practices by people in trade. The Act covers all advertising and selling of goods and services (except for private sales) and is administered by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and enforced by the Commerce Commission.

More about food labels - what must be on them?

A food label must be in English (other languages can be used in addition to English, as long as they do not contradict the information).

Labels should include some or all of the following information, depending on the product:

the name of the food

lot identification

name and address of supplier and business

mandatory warning statements, advisory statements and declarations for certain ingredients/substances (eg, allergens)

ingredient list

food additives

date marking

directions for use and storage

Nutrition Information Panel

percentage labelling of characterising ingredient

net weight or volume.

Which foods don’t require a full food label?

Complete food labels are not required for:

food made and packaged on the premises from which it is sold

food packaged in the presence of the purchaser

ready-to-eat delivered food

whole or cut fresh fruit and vegetables in transparent packages

food sold at a fundraising event

food not in a package

food in an inner package not designed for sale without the outer package.

Specific health and safety information about some food products must be given to consumers even when a complete label is not required (for example the presence of caffeine and allergenic substances). Additional labelling statements may be required for specific food products as outlined in the Food Standards Code.

How much can the amount of a substance vary from the NIP?

The amounts of a substance on the Nutrition Information Panel can be declared as an average. Although there are no specific statements about the degree of variation allowed under the Food Standards Code, manufacturers are required to follow Good Manufacturing Practice which provides guidelines on high and consistent standards for specific products.

Any significant deviation from the label may be in breach of the Food Act, the Fair Trading Act or the Food Standards Code.

Who checks to see if the food label or ingredients actually match the food?

Food manufacturers must ensure that their labels are accurate and can be verified. While NZFSA cannot check the level of every ingredient in every batch of every food produced, targeted surveillance studies are carried out and reports or complaints about non-compliance are acted upon. All complaints about labels are logged and initially referred to a Health Protection Officer at the local Public Health Unit.

If NZFSA considers there is a significant health issue with a food label, the manufacturer will be asked to correct its labelling. If there is a serious risk to the consumer, then the action may escalate to a product withdrawal or recall. Where there has been a breach of the Food Act, affecting many people or overseas market access, NZFSA’s Compliance and Investigation unit takes further action as necessary.

Will the Domestic Food Review tighten up on labelling compliance?

Yes. At present, the laws that govern food have a lot of strength when it comes to food safety but are not as useful for food suitability (such as complying with label information) which is one reason why they are being overhauled in the Domestic Food Review. Suitability – effectively compliance with labelling requirements – will be an integral part of the Food Control Plan that almost every food business will operate under.

Under the new laws, a Food Control Plan will detail how a business meets safety and suitability requirements with checks and steps to prove the food is safe (eg, free from pathogens and contaminants, handled and sold correctly) and suitable (eg, meets the requirements of a particular type of food and complies with the product label claims).

More on advertising – what about health claims or benefits, are these allowed?

No, although this is changing. At present, products can only make some nutrient claims (eg, ‘this food is high in fibre’). Other types of health claims are prohibited except for the claim that maternal consumption of folate helps prevent neural tube defects in developing foetuses.

Implied claims are usually part of the advertising or marketing of the product and should comply with the Fair Trading Act and the Food Act, and not be misleading.

In general, advertising on food packages should NOT make claims about the following (for the exact wording see Standard 1.1A.2 of the Food Standards Code):

claims that the food is for slimming or has intrinsic weight reducing properties

claims that the food has therapeutic or prophylactic action

the word ‘health’ or any words of similar meaning

information, either direct or implied that, could be interpreted as advice of a medical nature

the name of, or a reference to, any disease or physiological condition.

What are the proposed changes about health claims?

A new standard for Health, Nutrition and Related Claims is under development by FSANZ. Safeguards on the use of these claims will be introduced to ensure that consumers are able to make informed and healthy choices while preventing misleading claims.

The overall composition of the food will be used to determine if it is eligible to make a health claim, taking into account such factors as salt, sugar and saturated fat content as well as other criteria such as fibre, protein, fruit and vegetable content. The standard will allow truthful claims to be made, giving consumers information to make informed choices. Compliance with the new regulations will be mandatory and enforceable. Some features of the proposed standard include:

three types of claims are under consideration: claims about nutrient content (some of which already exist eg, fibre content); general health claims that describe a relationship between the consumption of a food and a general health benefit; and high level health claims that describe a relationship between the consumption of a food and benefits to health with reference to a serious disease or condition

for nutrition claims, it is proposed to set criteria and conditions that must be met eg, food described as ‘low salt’ must contain no more than 120 micrograms of sodium per 100 grams of solid food

before making a health claim manufacturers will need to gather evidence to substantiate it

high level health claims will need to be pre-approved on a case by case basis by FSANZ

there will be specific conditions for some claims (eg, a weight loss or weight maintenance claim must be made in the context of the importance of regular exercise)

general dietary information will be permitted on food labels and advertisements.

For more information on the proposed changes to the health claims permitted, see http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumerinformation/nutritionhealthandrelatedclaims/

What should I do if I think the advertising or food label information is misleading?

If you think product information is incorrect or missing from the product label, or is misleading, contact us (NZFSA) in the first instance to determine if the issue is covered by the Food Act or the Fair Trading Act. The NZFSA phone toll-free helpline is 0800 693 721.