Government moves to make food manufacturers adopt a front-of-pack signposting system on labels to help shoppers make healthier choices raise some interesting legal questions, argues Katharine Vickery, a solicitor in the food group at legal firm Pinsent Masons.
For a start, it is still unclear what products signposting will apply to.
Secondly, despite the fact that the industry has been told that the new system must be adopted by March 2006, the appropriate form of nutritional profiling, which would be used to underpin at least two of the proposed labelling systems, has yet to be decided, says Vickery.
"Profiling is a scientific benchmarking system that will evaluate the nutritional content of a product and determine whether it is less healthy, intermediate or healthier, or high, medium or low in a particular nutrient.
"However, the draft European Union regulation on health and nutrition claims [currently being debated in the European Parliament] also contains provision for nutritional profiling and it is not clear how the Food Standards Agency's work [in the UK] will marry up with the European regulation."
Thirdly, given that the UK signposting system will be voluntary rather than legally binding as food labelling rules have to be drawn up in Europe, it's not clear what will happen if manufacturers don't play ball, she says. Indeed, a raft of food companies have already started to roll out their own front-of-pack labelling approaches at no little expense, despite the fact that the FSA has not yet completed its consumer research to determine what the best system should be.
In reality, she argues, the move towards a standard system will probably force manufacturers to tow the line, even if they are not breaking the law by refusing to do so: "Any company that fails to use [the agreed form of] signposting will arouse consumer suspicion about its products and the belief that a product is nutritionally unsound or that the manufacturer has something to hide."