The true story of my food label fetish

Sep 30, 2015
Confession. I am a food label addict. And ever since I heard about the new food label legislation, my fetish about food labels has only been growing. It started with looking at labels of products on my table at home. But soon, I began to look at every label I came across. A bottle of beer in a restaurant needs a close inspection, not to tell what happens when I am at the supermarket. Each product I buy needs some attention. And worse, I also started to look at labels of the products I don’t need. Fortunately, I am only addicted to reading the labels. I do not feel the urge to buy all the food items. Or I would have gone broke already.

The changed labeling legislation

Minor changes can have a major impact. One of the key changes in the labeling legislation is the way allergens are presented in the list of ingredients for prepacked foods. This presentation should be clearer and more harmonized, for prepacked foods (emphasized by font, style or background color. What was wrong with the ‘old’ requirement? The old requirement says that allergens should be mentioned in a separate overview. In my opinion, things cannot be more clear when they are stated in a separate list. Easy to read, and people with a specific allergy only need to look for this list. But nothing’s wrong with being too cautious. Let’s assume that with this new law food becomes more ‘safe’ and fewer people will get sick by eating a product they are allergic to.

Are you in the bold or the Italic camp?

Working in the ERP automation we received some requests of customers how do deal with this new requirement. Discussion came up on how to ‘emphasize’ the allergens (boldItalic, Underline, Red, or “comic sans”. The law is very flexible, but a lot of time is spent inside food companies to make a decision. Marketing prefers BOLD, IT is more in favor of CAPITALS.

I wonder how the members of our European Union did come to this? First they came up with the fact to have allergens ‘emphasized. Next, the discussion started on what ‘emphasized’ should be. I assume we all know what Italy proposed, but this wasn’t supported by the rest of the EU. All the other options were discussed as well, but none of them got the unanimous support. So, they ended up with the most general description, leaving it up to the food community. The result? Allergens in the ingredient list of product A are differently emphasized than on product B, and C. This makes it confusing for the consumer.

Mandatory allergen information for non-prepacked food

A second interesting change (not so minor anymore) is the mandatory information on allergens to be provided with non-prepacked food. This obligation does not only apply to supermarkets and the local shops in the street, but also to restaurants, cafes, sports venues, local sports clubs, etc. I am sure that quite some restaurant owners were frightened when they got this news. Does this mean that in every menu a whole list of allergens should be printed? If so, then this would imply that a one-page menu would turn into several pages of information to go through. A three-course menu with entrée, main and dessert would contain a lot of allergens to be displayed. And what about your local sports club where you play tennis or golf every week. If they serve you non-prepacked food, they need to have allergen information available as well.

The escapes

Luckily, there are some interesting escapes. It is sufficient to inform your consumer that you sell products that hold allergens, and that you are happy to inform them in detail about the specific allergens upon request. This is why you now can find these kind of sentences at the bottom of each menu. Or somewhere at the entrance of the restaurant next to the standard, at the coat stand, displayed ‘The management is not responsible for any kind of damage or loss of your belongings’ you will find a sign saying ‘we cannot for 100% guarantee that no allergens will be present in our products. Do you have an allergy or do you have any questions? Ask our employees’.

Holiday season

My next holiday is planned. Traveling by a camper through Germany, Austria, Italy and France. This means a lot of new labels and products to be inspected. Hopefully, I can resist the urge. But I am sure that when I’m back, I will have a lot of photos of strange product labels which I do want to show you, so keep in touch.

And just let me know if you have the same interest in food labels as I have. I am interested in your story. Can you resist the urge to look at each label?


If you are interested in more information on this topic, visit this site for some Questions and answers on the legislation.

 Author: Maarten Cordenier. You can follow Maarten on Twitter (@Mcordenier) or connect with him on LinkedIn.