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  Food Labelling Regulations 1996


Food labelling is strictly governed by law and manufacturers can't just say what they like on labels. For example, a food can't claim to be 'reduced calorie' unless it is much lower in calories than the usual version. 

Highs and lows

You need to treat certain claims such as 'low-fat', 'reduced-sodium' and 'high-fibre' with care. Although by law these claims should not be misleading, there are no legal definitions for 'low', 'reduced' or 'high' (except for in butter, margarine and other spreadable fats).



The pictures on packets and labels must not be misleading. A raspberry yoghurt that gets its flavour from artificial flavouring, and not from fruit, is not allowed to have a picture of raspberries on the pot.



It's illegal for labels to have false information or misleading descriptions, but a few well-known foods are allowed to keep their names because we know what they are.

We know, for example, that swiss rolls don't have to come from Switzerland or Yorkshire pudding from Yorkshire, and cream crackers don't have to contain cream.

But if something we expect to come from a specific place - such as Cornish clotted cream - isn't made there, the label must say where it's made.


Advice on labels

It's important to pay particular attention to:

         date instructions, such as 'use by' and 'best before' - to avoid or reduce the risk of food poisoning

         defrosting and cooking times - to make sure that any harmful bugs are killed

         storage instructions and directions for preparing food - because correct handling can protect us against food poisoning

But you don't need to worry if the 'display until' date has been reached. This is an instruction to shop staff. Just check the 'use by' or 'best before' dates instead.

And remember, don't eat or cook anything you're not sure about. If in doubt - throw it out.


Use by

You will see 'use by' dates on food that goes off quickly, such as smoked fish, meat products and ready-prepared salads.

Don't use any food or drink after the end of the 'use by' date on the label, even if it looks and smells fine. This is because using it after this date could put your health at risk.

For the 'use by' date to be a valid guide, you must follow carefully storage instructions such as 'keep in a refrigerator'. If you don't follow these instructions, the food will spoil more quickly and you may risk food poisoning.

'Use by' does not always mean 'eat by'. If a food can be frozen its life can be extended beyond the 'use by' date.

But make sure you follow any instructions on the pack - such as 'freeze on day of purchase', 'cook from frozen' or 'defrost thoroughly before use and use within 24 hours'.

It's also important you follow any instructions for cooking and preparation shown on the label.

Once a food with a 'use by' date on it has been opened, you also need to follow any instructions such as 'eat within a week of opening'.

But if the 'use by' date is tomorrow, then you must use the food by the end of tomorrow, even if you only opened it today.


Best before

'Best before' dates appear on a wide range of frozen, dried, tinned and other foods.

The 'best before' dates are more about quality than safety, so when the date runs out it doesn't mean that the food will be harmful, but it might begin to lose its flavour and texture.

However, you shouldn't eat eggs after the 'best before' date. This is because eggs can contain salmonella bacteria, which could start to multiply after this date.

And remember, the 'best before' date will only be accurate if the food is stored according to the instructions on the label, such as 'store in a cool dry place' or 'keep in the fridge once opened'.

So, if you want to enjoy the food at its best, use it by its 'best before' date and make sure you follow any instructions.


Display until

Date marks such as 'display until' or 'sell by' often appear near or next to the 'best before' or 'use by' date. They are used by some shops to help with stock control and are instructions for shop staff, not shoppers.

The important dates for you to look for are the 'use by' and 'best before' dates


Allergy labelling

Labels on pre-packaged foods, including alcoholic drinks, need to make it clear if the product contains certain ingredients that people may be allergic or intolerant to. This became law in November 2005.


Which ingredients?

If any of the following 12 foods are used as an ingredient in pre-packed food, they need to be mentioned on the food label. This rule covers all European Union countries.

The 12 foods are:

  •    celery

  •    cereals containing gluten (wheat, barley, rye and oats)

  •    crustaceans (such as lobster and crab)

  •    eggs

  •    fish

  •    milk

  •    mustard

  •    nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts

  •    peanuts

  •    sesame seeds

  •    soybeans

  •    sulphur dioxide and sulphites (preservatives used in some foods and drinks) at levels above 10mg per kg or per litre

Labels also need to give clear information about ingredients made from these listed foods, for example a glaze made from egg.

These rules end a situation that meant that labels did not need to list individual ingredients if they were part of a compound ingredient, if the compound ingredient made up less than 25% of the product.


Some ingredients that won't be listed

Some ingredients made from these 12 foods are highly processed and are no longer able to cause allergic reactions. These ingredients don't need to be specially labelled, for example ingredients such as refined soya bean oil and glucose syrups made from wheat or barley.


'May contain' labelling

Some food labels say 'may contain nuts' or 'may contain seeds'. This means that even though nuts or seeds aren't deliberately included in the food, the manufacturer can't be sure that the product doesn't accidentally contain small amounts of them. If you have a nut or seed allergy you should avoid these food products.

If you think a food product has been labelled wrongly, report this to the trading standards service at your local authority.


Fresh, pure and natural

In 2002, the Food Standards Agency issued guidelines for the food industry and food law enforcement authorities on how these terms should be used.

In 2004, the Agency carried out a survey of products to see how the food industry was using the terms, and whether the Agency's guidance was being followed.

The survey showed that some producers were continuing to use some of the terms in ways that are potentially misleading to consumers, and the Agency has informed enforcement authorities about these producers.

The Agency is now carrying out research into consumer views on a wider range of terms, including: 'farmhouse pate', 'traditional style', 'style', 'handmade', 'premium', 'finest', 'best', 'quality' and 'selected'.

When the survey and consumer research are completed, details will be placed on our website. The Agency's guidelines will also be reviewed and expanded in line with the findings