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Guide to reading food labels

Guide to reading food labels

29.08.2012 17:42

But if consumers are not up to speed on the law, problems could ensue. You might find out that the labels on foods such as yogurt or packaged bread do not mean what you expected.

When shopping for food, we all have priorities. Some of us may be interested solely in quality, while others may weigh the price and other factors. But trying to make sense of food labels is by no means easy, mainly because the area is regulated by a whole series of laws, including EU legislation, regulations, and policies. To this end, various groups and organizations have created their own labels, which under certain conditions could wind up on the food you buy.

To sum up the basic facts, food labelling requirements differ according to whether or not the goods are packaged. Who packaged the goods also plays a role. Most important information can be found directly on packaged food, while non-packaged food must have product information located nearby, for example, next to the display racks for bread or fruit and vegetables. In that case, however, the information is typically less extensive. For unpackaged foods, you may find yourself looking in vain for details on the manufacturer, date of packaging, or even the contents and “flavouring”. Some exceptions, however, have been clearly set for meat and certain other foods.

If information on the manufacturer is easy to find, consider yourself lucky: according to the law, it is necessary only to state that the retailer, or “food packer”, is established in the EU. But the exact meaning of that term is not clear. The law itself does not define it but oddly enough in certain cases asks that the term be stated on the package. It does manage to explain the term “food producer” but rather broadly. Under it, for example, actions such as cleaning, sorting, pre-processing, and processing are all included.

But as regards production, the law does not address agricultural production. Here the manufacturer will obviously not be the company that planted the food but the one that worked toward creating the final product, which means that it may not be clear where the company got it. Therefore, if you want to know the exact origin of the food, apart from meat and other exceptions, you will have to rely on the label. But you may be left scratching your head: the country of origin need not be marked on foods (or packaging) unless not including it would mislead the consumer.

Organic: To buy or not to buy

Information that foods contain or are made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) must be stated on the package or next to non-packaged goods. But again, not always. If the content of GMOs is less than .9% and other conditions are fulfilled, no information to that effect will be stated on the food, not even if the goods are labelled as a product of organic farming. But if the manufacturer packages the goods voluntarily or provides other details, it is responsible for the accuracy of its information.

If you wish to learn more about organic products, know first of all that European and Czech legislation addresses this area rather strictly. It treats the label “bio” (organic) according to strict rules, and producers of such goods are closely monitored. The packaging and distribution process of organic products is characterized particularly by respect for and a friendly approach toward the environment and animals, and diverging from these principles is strictly prohibited.

On the other hand, labels such as “Klasa” (top quality), “Regionální potravina” (regional item), or “Český výrobek” (Czech product) are not directly governed by law at all. What the manufacturer is allowed to use is up to the brand’s owner, which is responsible for establishing rules and monitoring compliance. Owners of these brands want to distinguish their products from others by using certain labels. Thus, if a person wants to find out whether the quality of the food is similar to what is stated on the sticker, they buy it; the best move though is to look for more information on the company’s website. The same applies to goods that were not produced locally, such as fair trade products.

Legislation no doubt introduces a certain level of certainty to food labelling. But a person can only be absolutely certain if they buy locally from their own farmers, since only then will they know first hand what foods they are buying and what production methods were used. The question then of course is how realistic that option is given the hectic times we live in today.

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