Complex legal requirements under various codes, regulations, and laws govern food labelling standards in Australia
A food label should contain all the information the consumer needs to know prior to purchase. From ingredient lists to health claims, the Australian legal requirements for food labelling are primarily governed by the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand Food Standards Code (Code) and the Australian Consumer Law (ACL). To help you digest all that legislation, we’ve put together 10 things to consider before finalising your labels and packaging.
1. Food label descriptions
First things first, all food labels must include a true description of the product. Sometimes a description is not needed, as the name of the food itself portrays the description, for example milk. But when it comes to branded products, like a Mars Bar, a separate description is required, because Mars Bar is a made-up name. Next time you see a Mars Bar, you’ll notice that the packaging includes the description, “soft nougat, slathered in caramel, covered in thick milk chocolate”.
2. Ingredient lists in food labels
Most food products must have an ingredient list, but there are some exceptions for small packages and single ingredient foods. If there is an ingredients list, the ingredients must be listed in descending order of weight.
There are also different requirements for different types of ingredients:
A characterising ingredient is an ingredient that is:
a) Mentioned in the name of the food;
b) Usually associated with the food; or
c) Emphasised on the label
A characterising ingredient must be listed followed by its percentage content in brackets. For example, let’s consider Chocolate Ice Cream. All the components that make up the chocolate and ice cream must include the percentage content.
Many foods contain compound ingredients, which are ingredients that are made up of more than one ingredient.
If the compound ingredient contributes 5% or more to the total product weight, the components of that compound ingredient must be listed in weight order in brackets after the compound ingredient, for example, Chocolate (cocoa, milk)
Additives, being ingredients that are added for a technological purpose, must be listed as the class of additive followed by the approved number or name in brackets, for example, Colour (150a) or Colour (Caramel I).
If the food contains allergens, these must be declared separately from the ingredients list, even when they make up part of a compound ingredient that contributes to less than 5% of the total product. The most common allergens include:
- Tree nuts
- Sesame seeds
Any allergens should be declared in a separate “contains” list, and industry standard practice is also to bold the allergens in the ingredients list. A “may contain” statement is not legally required but is also industry standard where there is potential cross-contamination.
3. Nutritional Information Panel (NIP)
A NIP must contain the following information:
- Number of servings of the food
- Average quantity of the food in a serving
- Average energy content in kilojoules
- Average quantity of protein, carbohydrates (total and sugars), sugars, and fat (total and saturated)
- Average quantity of sodium in milligrams
If you are making a nutrition content claim on pack, you must also include a line item for that nutrient in the NIP. For example, a claim for “high in fibre” would require adding fibre to your NIP.
4. Warning and advisory statements
Certain foods or ingredients that may cause health or safety risks must be declared as part of a warning or advisory statement. For example, if the food contains sorbitol or erythritol at more than 25g/100g, there must be a statement that excess consumption of the food may have a laxative effect.
Mandatory statements must be:
- Clearly legible on the label;
- In a bold font; and
- In a font size that is no smaller than the other text in the ingredients list
5. Nutrition content claims
Nutrition content claims are claims about the presence or absence of a nutrient in your food. Some of these claims are specifically regulated under the Code (in Schedule 4) and require the nutrient to meet maximum and minimum thresholds. For example, a claim for “a good source of iron” can only be made if there is at least 3 grams of iron in a serving of the food.
Nutrition content claims that are not specifically regulated by Schedule 4 can still be made if they are not misleading or deceptive.
6. Health claims
Health claims are claims that state or imply that the food or ingredient has or may have a certain health effect on the consumer. Health claims can only be made if they are specifically listed under the Code in Schedule 4 and meet the minimum or maximum thresholds. For example, if you want to make a claim about calcium, there must be at least 200 milligrams of calcium in a serving of the food to make the specific, permitted claim.
7. Country of origin
Country of origin requirements fall under the Australian Consumer Law. In most cases, your food label must include a statement that identifies where the food was grown, produced, made, or packaged. These claims cannot be used interchangeably, as each carry a different meaning:
- “Grown in” means where the food or ingredients came from. This claim is mostly used for fresh food
- “Produced in” means where the food or its significant ingredients were processed. This claim is mostly used for processed food
- “Made in” means that the food went through a substantial transformation (manufactured) in that country
- “Packaged” means where the food was packed
There are also additional requirements when it comes to claims about Australia and use of the kangaroo logo, which is a trade mark administered by the Australian Made Campaign.
8. Date markings and storage instructions
For most foods, a “use-by” or “best-before” date is only required if that date is less than 2 years from when the date is determined.
- Use-by date: the date on which the food should no longer be consumed because of health or safety risks, for example, milk
- Best-before date: the date on which the food may no longer retain specific qualities and therefore may not be as tasty (but is not unsafe to consume), for example, breakfast cereal
If there is a date marking, the label should also include storage instructions.
9. Contact details
All food packaging must include the name and address of the supplier (the manufacturer, distributor, packer, or importer).
For most foods, the label must also state the lot or batch number, which can be used to identify where the food was prepared or packed and the lot or batch that the food belongs to.
10. Misleading and deceptive conduct
All representations made both on and off-pack must comply with the ACL. Primarily, this means that representations and claims must not be false, misleading, or deceptive and this applies to what is expressly stated (whether in words or images), as well as what is omitted. It includes representations that are made about:
- The quality of the food
- The nutrition content
- Country of origin
- Any other benefits
There is no specific threshold or definition when it comes to misleading and deceptive conduct, as it is a subjective test to be determined by the courts. But, when in doubt, say what you mean and make sure it can be substantiated.
The final word
Food labelling is a complex regulatory beast, and this article only skims the surface of the requirements. If you have food labelling requirements, we recommend that you proceed with caution and seek our legal assistance as soon as possible.
This Article was written by Alexandra Shaw
DISCLAIMER: We accept no responsibility for any action taken after reading this article. It is intended as a guide only and is not a substitute for the expert legal advice you can receive from marshalls+dent+wilmoth and other relevant experts.