Food manufacturers are deceiving the public by mislabelling their products as “artisanal” or homemade and implying they are full of healthy whole grains and fruit when they are not, according to a new report.
Food labelling needs to be toughened up, says the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) which has published the report. While manufacturers have to put salt, sugar and fat levels on the back of the pack, there is nothing to stop them making false claims and using deceptive pictures on the front.
Three areas are singled out in the report called Food Labels: Tricks of the Trade.
- Foods are labeled “traditional”, “artisanal” or “natural”, evoking the idea of small-scale craft food-making, when they are processed in a factory. “Recipes which contain industrial dyes or additives which could not be reasonably considered as traditional are nonetheless labelled as such,” says the report.
- Phony fruits. The picture on the front of the pack of healthy fruits such as strawberries or cherries belies the content, which may have only a tiny amount or use just flavourings and colouring.
- Whole grain only in the name. The true amount of whole grain may be listed among the ingredients in the small print on the back, but the packaging for pasta that is 55% whole grain may look no different from that for 100% whole grain pasta.
The report cites an example from Norway of a “natural turkey fillet”, which was just 53% turkey – the rest was chicken and additives. An artichoke soup in Italy boasting of “natural ingredients” used flavourings and was only 2.7% artichoke. The report points out that recently, the UK advertising authority censured Pret for describing food as “natural” that contained E-numbers.
In Belgium and the Netherlands a popular dairy brand is labelled as a ‘red fruit yoghurt drink’ with pictures of strawberries and raspberries on the packet – yet there is only 2% fruit juice in it and most of that is cheaper apple.
The report pulls together data from consumer organisations in a number of European countries. While the UK did not submit examples, BEUC says its consumers suffer just as much as anywhere else from misleading labels.
Ben Reynolds, deputy chief executive of the charity Sustain in the UK, agreed. “We know that consumers in this country are being conned by phony products, and as a nation getting nowhere near its five a day, exaggerated claims about fruit or veg content are deeply irresponsible,” he said.
“Vague marketing terms like ‘artisanal’ and ‘farmhouse’ fool us into thinking we’re buying higher quality products and we’re routinely charged more for the privilege.
“Our research has revealed that UK supermarkets routinely flout the law and sell ‘wholemeal’ bread (which should have 100% wholemeal flour) made with refined flour which is cheaper and less good for you, and that ‘wholegrain’ lacks any legal definition. That’s why we’re calling for an Honest Crust Act, which would legally define these marketing terms and require supermarkets to print a full list of ingredients.
“This report highlights the need to have a national debate about food labelling before we leave the EU. Brexit represents an opportunity for us to design and enforce our own regulations on food labelling, protect UK consumers and make it easier to make healthy choices.”
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