Food manufacturers took a further battering this week when the UK Consumers' Association (CA) released new research, as part of its Honest Labelling campaign, that suggests the public continues to be misled by inadequate food and drink labelling - with actual ingredients sometimes bearing little relation to the name of the advertised product.
The thorny issue of food labelling finds food manufacturers, on the one hand, defending the honesty and clarity of food labels, while on the other hand, consumer organisations maintain that labels are continually trying to hoodwink the vulnerable consumer.
The Health Which? survey asked 90 members of the public from two parts of the country what they thought about food labelling and asked them to look at five products. Of the products tested Paxo's Celebration Sausagemeat and Thyme Stuffing Mix proved one of the most misleading, reports the survey. Nearly two thirds of respondents expected sausagemeat to be the main ingredient. The meat in the stuffing mix, reports the CA, is in fact a minimum of eight per cent mechanically separated turkey (Paxo Celebration Sausagemeat and Thyme Stuffing Mix now contains 6 per cent chicken meat powder).
A similar number of people, claims the survey, thought that cranberry would be the main ingredient in Whole Earth Organic Mountain Cranberry Drink. But with 0.42 per cent cranberry juice most people felt misled by the labelling. According to the CA the drink now contains 3.2 per cent cranberry juice. The same story for Del Monte Peruvian Star Fruit Juice Blend that only contained 2 per cent star fruit, and elsewhere, the main ingredient of Tesco Mincemeat was sugar.
Bernard Matthews Turkey and Pork Original Sausages received a degree of positive feedback, with most expressing surprise that the sausages contained as much as 20 per cent pork and 38 per cent turkey. This was higher than expected, although respondents' expectations of meat content were fairly low.
So how has the food industry responded to the forceful results of the CA survey? Deputy director general of the Food and Drink Federation, Martin Patersonsaid this week: "Manufacturers agree that marketing claims and labelling should be truthful and not misleading.
Manufacturers are bound by the 1990 Food Safety Act, which protects consumers from misleading or false claims. The FDF is already working with the Food Standards Agency to improve food labelling as part of the Agency'sFood Labelling Action Plan."
For the UK consumers organisation, calling for much tougher legislation on food labelling, this is clearly not enough.
"Health Which? is calling for the food and drinks industry to label their products honestly and stop misleading consumers," said Kaye McIntosh, Health Which? editor.
But Paterson disagrees. "UK food and drink manufacturers rely on the loyalty and trust of theircustomers and do not set out to mislead, " he claimed.
What changes is the CA hoping for? Health Which? is calling for changes to legislation so that full ingredients labelling is displayed on all pre-packed food and drink, including alcoholic drinks, full details of substances that can cause food allergies are given (soon to be the case with tough EU legislation now passed), the "full eight" (energy, protein, carbohydrate, sugars, fat, saturates, salt, and fibre) nutrients labelled, and standard criteria for healthy eating symbols and slogans, prior to the approval of health claims.
It would be difficult for the CA to deny that the EU is avoiding making moves to strengthen food ingredients labelling legislation. In the past month we have seen the EU introducing the toughest legislation on GM foods in the world, and in addition, groundbreaking rules for the labelling of potential food allergens. But clearly, a common sense approach to labelling must be enforced. After all, as the CA highlighted, can a branded fruit juice drink containing only two per cent of the advertised fruit really be reasonable?