Seismic changes are taking place in the food and drink sector. In a fast moving industry there is not much opportunity to reflect but with the calendar year drawing to a close now is the time to consider the main issues of 2014 and to look forward to the year ahead. 

Information and labelling

13 December 2014 is the deadline after which labels must be substantially reformulated to comply with the main provisions of Food Information Regulation 1169/2011, replacing Food Labelling Directive 2000/13/EC and Directive 90/496/EEC, on nutrition labelling. 

Key changes concern legibility, minimum font size, nutrition declaration, use of portion size, allergen labelling, date of freezing, how food has been processed (if to omit would mislead), defrosted and refrozen foods, added ingredients (e.g. added water), false or imitation foods, ‘formed’ foods and Country of Origin Labelling (COOL.) The intention is to create much greater consistency of labelling across the EU. As a number of grey areas remain it is likely that enforcement authorities will take a “light touch” approach to enforcement until these are clarified. 

Health and nutrition claims

Health and nutrition claims provide the opportunity to give foods a unique selling point. However, the scrutiny that claims are put under remains intense. This is a highly prescriptive area. Food businesses must operate within the Nutrition & Health Claims Regulation 1924/2006 (NHCR). Although some flexibility is permitted, where there is any deviation from accepted health claim wording an enormous amount of care is needed to ensure that there is no implicit exaggeration or change in meaning. However, additional information may also be provided using the context and illustration of an advert as well as voiceovers that may assist in informing the health claim itself. 

This area will remain key for the industry. Health and nutrition claims on food generate increased consumer demand. However the front line remains reformulation and interpretation of health claims.

Authenticity, quality and an ethical code

Authenticity and quality as concepts include quality assurance, traceability through supply chains and consumer trust. They are closely allied in consumer consciousness with ideals of sustainability and welfare. 

After the horsemeat contamination of last year consumers want to know where their food was produced and how it was produced. This is now a major purchasing point for them (after price). 

Alongside any moral concerns, food companies have their reputations to consider. Once a product becomes marred with, for example, the taint of slavery, (such as in the Thai fish industry) the exploitation of a vulnerable group (such as Bangladeshi garment workers) or a lack of welfare provisions for animals (such as battery chickens), it is difficult to shake off. 

In a globalised world, being certain that your supply chain is free from suppliers that operate in breach of the law is increasingly complex but where any positive claims are made there is a corresponding positive responsibility to ensure these are right.   

Brands/Joint ventures

The power of the brand remains paramount. Consumer trust is vitally important to this and consumers want to be able to relate to a product that reflects their own values. 

2014 saw a continued increase in brands rejuvenating their product offerings and capitalising on their heritage. Additionally there has been an increase in joint ventures by brands or limited promotions combining complementary offerings to increase the impact of both brands.   

Food crime

The UK’s first Food Crime Unit is to be established within the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and is anticipated to be operational by the end of 2014. The Unit will be responsible for coordinating information and investigations between government, regulatory, industry and international agencies and supporting enforcement action. 

Intelligence gathering will be vital to the investigations and success of the Food Crime Unit. Whether this will be effectively carried out will depend on the resources allocated to it. In particular, it will rely on an improved network of analytical food laboratories and officials to ‘horizon scan’ via the review of factors such as commodity prices and environmental concerns which are likely to highlight those areas where there is vulnerability. 

There is likely to be an increased onus on the food industry to check appropriately its sources of supply particularly where commodity prices or suppliers may be under pressure. Carrying out such checks will have implications for audit and risk assessment procedures and also for the possible defence of due diligence should offences occur. However the objective of the Food Crime Unit is specifically stated to be the targeting of organised crime rather than small scale regulatory breaches. Whether this will apply in practice will depend on what 2015 has to bring.