What next for food labelling after Brexit?

The news that the Prime Minister last week officially notified the European Union of the UK’s intention to leave has had a cool reception from figures in the food and drink industry. Prominent voices in the sector have not hesitated to publicly express their concerns as manufacturers face key challenges on multiple fronts, including the reality of operating under tariffs and barriers, and restricted access to a shared labour market – something food producers are reliant on.

Uncertainty remains the watchword as media and industry voices alike speculate on the UK’s future trading relationships as it disentangles itself from the EU, with increasingly tough trading conditions set to complicate every aspect of the UK’s largest manufacturing sector. This ranges from the eye-catching to the more pedestrian, including in the realm of food labelling.

Labelling – which has always appeared innocuous enough – has long been an awkward conversation point for the industry. Critics claim that as it stands the industry is falling short in this area, with the sector facing increasing blame for making labelling on foods too obtuse for consumers.  Sugar, salt and fat have been in the spotlight but recently the issue has bubbled up again. In February food manufacturers faced allegations of misleading consumers over “wholegrain” products that were in fact loaded with sugar. The food industry just can’t seem to get it right.

So where now for food labelling?

As companies get to grips with a post-Brexit reality, the food industry would be wise to put a premium on corporate transparency. Tesco’s recent launch of a food waste hotline for suppliers to help pinpoint waste hotspots represented the brand accepting some responsibility for food waste, but also leading in providing a solution for change. Sainsbury’s published their waste figures for the first time last year. Transparent moves like these allow consumers to make informed purchasing decisions and ultimately drive brand trust by sidestepping negative publicity and being on the side of the consumer.

Similarly, labelling is an area in which brands can lead on transparency.  Concerns about how difficult it is for consumers to understand the current UK “traffic light” food labels have been voiced for some time, but calls to institute images of teaspoons on packaging to denote how healthy or unhealthy a product is in terms of sugar and salt content may be equally misleading. Proposals like this may even needlessly induce panic in consumers, by over-egging the quantities of ingredients in products, painting them as unhealthier than they actually are.

Currently, EU rules on trade prevent new labelling techniques to give families a clearer idea about the sugar and salt in household products. Brexit represents an opportunity for brands to better inform people about what goes into their favorite products. Companies would be best-placed to capitalise on this and put transparency first as they seek to regain consumer trust. To do this, industry collaboration and significant consumer consultation must be sought – not only to ensure consistency in how nutritional information is provided, but also in making sure labels speak clearly to increasingly discerning consumers. People and brands needn’t necessarily be put off by these changes – in fact, they should be seen as an opportunity to get closer to consumers who are increasingly being alienated by an industry constantly receiving bad press.

Now is a time in which people are increasingly living busier lifestyles and have less time to make food from scratch, but they are more concerned about the provenance of their food. Tricky questions will be asked of the industry from government and consumers as they seek out products where both the provenance and quantity of ingredients is made clear. Food companies in post-Brexit Britain must be prepared to provide answers for consumers.

Jai Jethwa, Account Manager, Corporate