John Mitchell, partner at law firm Blake Morgan, looks at the issues around claiming a food product is ‘natural’

In terms of food labelling and advertising, the Real Bread Campaign’s (RBC’s) recent victory has shown that even the biggest names in the food industry don’t always get it right.

Following a complaint from the RBC, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled that two Pret A Manger adverts, which purported its products avoided ‘obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives’ and referred to its food as ‘natural’, breached the ASA code.

The RBC claimed Pret’s adverts were misleading because they implied its foods were free from additives – when in fact some of Pret’s bread contains E-numbers. Although Pret said its adverts did not claim it used only natural ingredients, or that its food was additive- and preservative-free, the regulator ruled that consumers were likely to interpret Pret’s claims to mean that its foods were ‘natural’ as they did not contain chemicals, additives and preservatives. 

This is not the first time the ASA, the UK’s independent advertising regulator, has upheld complaints on the use of the term ‘natural’ in relation to food. When it comes to the law, the ASA’s system runs in parallel with legal frameworks. While the law imposes a blanket ban on false or misleading labelling, there is limited legislation on the use of specific terms. In relation to the term ‘natural’ and its application to food, there are three relevant laws: the EU’s Food Information for Consumers and General Food Regulations, and the Food Safety Act. Each piece of legislation makes businesses responsible for providing consumers with a clear understanding of what is – and isn’t – in their food.

However, as there is no legal definition of the term ‘natural’ in EU or UK law, regulations covering its use in relation to food are open to legal argument. 

To assist in this legal grey area, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) published guidance on how to use commonly used industry terms. Pret’s case was, in part, based on the FSA’s most recent guidance (published in 2008), which incorporated consumer expectations and market research on classifying what it is to ‘mislead’ consumers.  The guidance said: “’Natural’ means ... that the product is comprised of natural ingredients, e.g. ingredients produced by nature, not the work of man or interfered with by man. It is misleading to use the term to describe foods or ingredients that employ chemicals to change their composition or comprise the products of new technologies, including additives and flavourings that are the product of the chemical industry or extracted by chemical processes.”

Although this was informal, non-binding advice, it provided businesses with clear guidance to help them achieve compliance with food advertising law. Currently, there is a vacuum and businesses are having to use common sense to make decisions which might result in a reference to the ASA or a prosecution by the local trading standards office.

The key issue is whether or not the information provided can be seen to mislead consumers, based on their expectations. Businesses are responsible for providing accurate and transparent information about the foods they produce to ensure consumers can make informed decisions on the food they buy.