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Consumer Protection

Food producers and retailers have a duty to not only ensure food is safe but also to provide information to consumers about foods that is clear, accurate and based on scientific evidence. Legislation prohibits the use of information and claims about food that is misleading. This also ensures fair competition between businesses.

Food labelling is the prime means of informing the consumer about the food they are purchasing. Legislation on food labelling guides producers and retailers and gives consumers rights to basic information, such as ingredients, nutrition, origin and safety information — including storage life, handling, preparation instructions and allergens. The type of information, design of labels (eg size, position and layout of important information) and the wording used are controlled by legislation.

Both the EU and the US specify what wording can be used to make claims about food (eg “low fat”, “high fat”). The EU has a Public Register of Nutrition and Health Claims that lists what is permitted and forbidden.

Food labelling in the EU

In the EU, recent legislation modernised the framework on nutrition information. Regulation (EU) 1169/2011 combines two previous Directives on labelling, presentation and advertising of foodstuffs and nutrition labelling and repeals several others (European Commission, 2016).

The remit of the FIC Regulation is to “serve the interests of the internal market” by:

  • simplifying the law;
  • ensuring legal certainty;
  • reducing administrative burden; and
  • benefit citizens by requiring clear, comprehensible and legible labelling of foods.

Nutrition information

New sections of the EU food law will come into effect on 13 December 2016 that require certain nutrition information to be provided to consumers. The key points are:

  • The legislation applies to businesses at all stages of the food chain and to all foods intended for final consumption, including food delivered by, or supplied to, mass caterers.

  • Responsibility for providing the necessary information, and ensuring it is accurate, lies with the manufacturer marketing the food under their name. If they are based outside the EU, it lies with the importer.

  • Mandatory information includes: the food’s name, list of ingredients, net quantity, use by date, instructions for use if necessary, operator's name and address and a nutrition declaration.

  • Food information should not mislead the public, particularly by suggesting it possesses special characteristics or effects it does not have. It should be accurate, clear and easy for the consumer to understand.

  • There is additional mandatory information for certain types of food, containing ingredients such as sweeteners, ammonium salt or high caffeine content and for engineered nanomaterials.

  • Foods such as herbs and spices, flavourings, herbal teas, fresh fruit and vegetables, carbonated water, vinegars, and dairy items like cheese, butter, cream and fermented milk, do not need to have a list of ingredients.

Labelling confusion

The amount of information on food supplied to consumers is increasing, due to both legislation and demand from consumers.

Scientific research has increased our knowledge about food production, safety, and what is healthy. Providing more information on food labels helps the consumer make choices relating to ingredients, diet, health, quality, taste, traceability, safety, sustainability and even ethics of food production.

The wide range of information can lead to information overload, however. The number of health claims, different quality labels, nutrition facts, advice and marketing information, and in some cases misleading and contradictory information, can overwhelm many people and cause confusion even for more educated people (TNS, 2014).

There is a need for a balance between informing shoppers and preventing them making appropriate choices.

Food fraud

Food fraud directly affects the consumer through the supply of substandard, fake or dangerous products and leading to overpayment for the product purchased.

Food fraud, according to the European Parliament in a 2013 report is “a growing trend reflecting a structural weakness within the food chain”.

The risk of fraud is also increasing because of the “complexity and cross-border character of the food chain”.

Contributing factors include the economic crisis, budget cuts for control agencies and “pressure from the retail sector and others to produce food ever more cheaply”.

In Europe

In Europe there is no clear definition or measures in law to control food fraud other than the general food safety legislation which states that consumers should not be misled about products. (European Parliament, 2013).

In the US

In the US, the law is clearer and provides for fines and up to life imprisonment. The Federal Anti-Tampering Act makes it a federal crime to tamper with or taint a consumer product.

Types of food fraud include:

  • replacing key ingredients with cheaper alternatives;
  • wrongly labelling the animal species used in a meat product;
  • incorrectly labelling the weight;
  • selling ordinary foods as organic;
  • unfairly using origin or animal welfare quality logos;
  • labelling aquaculture fish as wild-caught;
  • counterfeiting; and
  • marketing food past its use-by date.

Top 10 products commonly targeted for food fraud

  • olive oil;
  • fish;
  • organic foods;
  • milk;
  • grains;
  • honey and maple syrup;
  • coffee and tea;
  • spices, eg saffron and chili powder;
  • wine; and
  • some types of fruit juice.

Recent cases in Europe have included marketing of ordinary flour as organic flour, battery cage eggs as organic eggs, road salt as food salt, the widely reported selling of horsemeat as beef and the use of methanol-contaminated alcohol in spirits.

Food losses and waste

A study conducted by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology for the FAO (FAO, 2011) found that around one third of all food produced globally, amounting to 1.3 billion tonnes per year, is lost or wasted.

In Europe and North America, the losses and waste amounted to 95-115 kg/person/year compared to only 6-11 kg/person/year in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Reasons for food loss

  • farmer–buyer sales agreements leading to wasted crops;
  • quality standards rejecting misshapen or non-perfect-looking food;
  • insufficient purchase planning by consumers;
  • expiring best-before dates;
  • attitudes of consumers who can afford to waste food.

Food losses waste resources used in food production, including land, fuel, water, fertiliser, pesticides, veterinary medicines, they result in economic losses to farmers and consumers, and generate unnecessary CO2 and methane.

Solving inefficiencies and waste in the supply chain could contribute greatly to food equality and food costs to the consumer.

The extreme example of supply chain food losses is shown by those estimated for North America, where cereals, roost and tubers, fruit and vegetables, and fish and seafood all showed losses around 30% just at the consumer stage, according to FAO. (FAO, 2011)

UK supermarket chain Tesco publishes figures of its own food waste (55,400 tonnes in 2014/15) and studied the losses of a selection of common foods from supply chain to consumer.

Total losses across the whole chain ranged from 60% for bagged salad and 54% for potatoes, to 44% for bread, 20-30% for fruit and down to around 10% for dairy products (Tesco plc).

How to reduce waste

The FAO recommends the following practices for retailers and consumers to reduce waste (FAO, 2014):

  • Introduce discount schemes for near-expired products;
  • Order only sufficient stock and practice good stock management;
  • Practice segregation of wastes for recycling;
  • Reduce use of plastics and encourage use of reusable bags for the organized food retail sector; and
  • Base portion sizes of servings on actual consumption patterns of consumers.

Bibliography

European Commission. (2016). Food Information to consumers — legislation. Retrieved March 3, 2016, from European Commission.

European Parliament. (2013). Draft report on the food crisis, fraud in the food chain and the control thereof. Brussels: European Parliament.

FAO. (2011). Global food losses and food waste — Extent, causes and prevention. Rome: FAO.

Food and Drug Administration. (2016, February 2). Labeling & Nutrition Guidance Documents & Regulatory Information. Retrieved March 16, 2016, from fda.gov.

TNS. (2014). Study on the Impact of Food Information on Consumers’ Decision Making. TNS European Behaviour Studies Consortium.