The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is currently conducting a public consultation on new guidance on food-labelling terms, such as ’fresh’, ’pure’, ’premium’ and ’quality’. But many of the proposed guidelines are too vague to clarify any ambiguities.

The proposed changes will do little to stop unscrupulous use of such words - with the result that this proposed guidance is no more than ineffective over-regulation. The FSA last revised the guidance on the use of marketing terms of this kind in 2002. However, in light of consumer concern and changes within the industry, it has now launched a consultation on updated guidelines - responses to be submitted by 21 January 2008.

Firstly, the changes add to the existing guidance on terms such as ’natural’, ’pure’ and ’homemade’ and, secondly, give guidance for the first time on several other words such as ’premium’, ’quality’, ’best’ and ’selected’.

The guidelines are intended to provide clearer advice to manufacturers, producers, retailers and caterers, to help the enforcement authorities and to assist consumers in their product selection.

unnecessary obfuscation

In relation to the words already covered in the existing guidance, the proposals add useful clarification. However, the major change is the proposal to provide, for the first time, guidance for some additional terms such as ’quality’ and ’premium’, and this is the aspect that is seriously flawed. Under the new guidance, the criteria that a product must fulfil to carry such a word would be very vague and, in most cases, if the criteria mean anything, they are satisfied by nearly all food products on the UK market anyway.

This is not surprising: how can one possibly attach any clear meaning to a word such as ’quality’ or ’selected’? The result is that these changes provide no real guidance at all and, it could be argued, give the green light to unscrupulous manufacturers. For example on ’selected’, the guidance suggests that "there should be a high level of quality control". But the problem with this is that every manufacturer can claim they provide exactly that.

if it ain’t broke...

The existing guidance has been of real value to the industry and to regulators in giving an indication of what would, and would not be, illegal or misleading labelling. It is absolutely right that consumers should not be misled by labelling and advertising and that is why the long-standing guidance on terms such as ’natural’ and ’traditional’ has been so useful.

But breaching the guidance suggested for these additional words would not usually constitute an offence. I sincerely hope the outcome of the consultation will be that the FSA updates the current guidance, but takes the decision not to extend it to additional words. n

l Owen Warnock is partner at international law firm Eversheds