Food Labelling, Food Law and Food Recalls. 

Typically, we're all familiar with major product recalls, like cars for example. They tend to grab news headlines around the world and garner huge publicity. A far more common recall though, is far less publicised. The food recall.

The next time you're in your local supermarket, keep an eye out at the tills, and particularly the customer service area (if there is one). 9 times out of 10, there will be at least one black and white A4 page with details of a food product that has been recalled.

In the UK, the Food Standards Agency have reported 18 food recalls just this month (April 2019). 

Why are foods typically recalled?

The majority of time, it's for incorrect labelling. While this may not immediately seem that big a deal, consider if a product contains nuts, but the label does not indicate that. This could have very (very) serious consequences for a person who suffers from a nut allergy. This can be particularly common for multi-jurisdictional chains such as Lidl and Aldi. This month, for example, Lidl recalled HealthyCo Proteinella Smooth Hazelnut and Cocoa Spread because it contains hazelnuts, almonds and milk which are not written in English on the label.

Other times, the product might have more general health concerns, such as the presence of salmonella. (This is surprisingly, and worryingly, common).

You can see the full list of alerts from the UK Food and Safety Authority HERE.

In Ireland, the FSAI has a similar list and service - Check out HERE and HERE.

What is the legal position?

Well, firstly, putting a product on the market that doesn't comply with the relevant EU and local regulations  as to labelling is likely going to see you receive any or all of the following; a letter from the FSAI; a visit from the relevant appointed inspector; a fine; and/or a criminal conviction.

The laws relating to labelling requirements are extensive, but one of the main requirements is that labels must highlight in bold certain common allergens. Check almost any food that has ingredients for an example. Anything in bold is a common allergen. Putting a product on the market that doesn't comply with this requirement is a recipe (excuse the pun) for disaster.

If a product is put on the market which is incorrectly labelled, and which leads to injury or event death, then the responsible party/parties are potentially exposed to a personal injuries claim and, in extreme cases, a conviction for manslaughter. This was the result in a tragic case heard last year in the UK where a 15 year old girl with serious allergies died after eating a takeaway meal which contained allergens which were not identified. See here.

Other Issues

One issue which is often overlooked or not considered is the logistics and cost of a product recall. What is really important here is batch numbering and ensuring that if a recall becomes necessary, it is possible to put into effect limited to a specific batch and/or date range. It is important for food and drink businesses to ensure traceability of the their product along every step of their supply chain to minimise the practical and logistical effect of a product recall if one becomes necessary. The importance of putting appropriate systems and checks in place cannot be overstated.

In terms of packaging and labelling of your products, this is definitely not one area of life where the maxim "if in doubt, leave it out" applies. Getting your labels wrong, can be a financially and reputationally expensive exercise, which you might find hard to stomach (sorry).

Brian Conroy is a food lawyer and brand protection specialist. If you have any food law, labelling law or brand protection queries, call him on 00 353 1 6393000.