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Restaurant Menu and False Labeling

The theme of this month is about the description of restaurant menus and false labeling. There was a big scandal surrounding hotel and restaurant industries in Japan in 2013 - misrepresented food menus.

The following are some examples of false labeling:
Labeling fat-injected beef as “beef steak”.
Labeling a dish with SOME organic vegetables as a dish with organic vegetable (failed to mention “some”).

The Consumer Affairs Agency (CAA), following the scandal, held a meeting in 2014 to discuss views in an attempt to ensure proper labeling practices, and issued "Guidelines concerning menu labeling under the Act against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations". A panel discussion on allergen labeling in restaurants was held at the CAA in the spring of that year, and an interim report on the way to provide allergen information in restaurants was issued at the end of the year. Afterwards, in April 2015, the new Food Labeling Standard came into effect.

Even under the new Standard, it is not mandatory to provide a label for food sold in restaurants. (Note that food labeling is mandatory for food sold to restaurants.) Nevertheless, food labeling started to gain attention among the restaurant industry, probably due a series of false labeling scandals and the review on allergen labeling in the past 2 years.

Let me summarize food and menu labeling in Japan, focusing on false labeling, which provided an opportunity to review the whole food labeling.

Basic idea of false labeling

False labeling is defined as false or misleading statements trying to make a product look better than what it actually is. Please refer to the "Guidelines concerning menu labeling under the Act against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations" published by the CAA. Let's take a look at some basic ideas of false labeling in restaurants.

  1. The labeling is different from what it actually is.
  2. General consumers won’t be interested in the menu if the labeling is different from what it actually is.

The difference in "1" implies two meanings, difference in Quality and in Quantity. If I use the aforementioned examples of false labeling (1 and 2), they can be distinguished as follows:

- Quality: Labeling fat-injected beef as "beef steak".
- Quantity: Labeling a dish with SOME organic vegetables as a dish with organic vegetable (failed to mention "some").

When reviewing food labels, it is important that we pay attention not only to whether the label meets legal requirements but also to whether any fraudulent claims are made or not.

Until this point, I have given 2 different types of false labeling, quality and quantity. I now would like to list some key words which has sparked the menu labeling scandal.

"Can it be referred to as xxx? " --- Quality

- Food with prescribed definition and standard (e.g. brand names, origins, contract farmers, shrimps, beef steak, fresh cream, locally produced poultry, organics, etc.)
- Food with unsupported claims (e.g. fresh, hand-made, home-made, picked-in-the-morning, etc.)

"How much amount?" --- Quantity

- The number of menus that use specific ingredients (e.g. Ingredients from declared origin (region/country) or specific ingredients, such as organic ingredients, are used only in limited menus.)
- The quantity of ingredients used (e.g. only some of the ingredients used are organic or from declared origin (region/country).)

Please switch the word 'menu' with 'product' for processed food products.

Preventing future mislabeling

Three key points to prevent future mislabeling are listed below:

  1. Recognize the importance of labeling
  2. Understand relevant labeling rules and regulations
  3. Have a grasp of the actual situation

No.3 'Have a grasp of the actual situation' should be the most difficult one to follow as it will require continued observation, along with No. 1 'Recognize the importance of labeling', which needs to be approached from a trainer-level facilitator.

Measures to be taken to prevent menu mislabeling are the same in principle as for food labeling of packaged foods, but a system may need to be established for raw materials to be properly checked so that false menu labeling can be prevented to a certain extend.

In the meantime, a high level of controlling system will be required for allergen labeling, more efforts than for false labeling; for example, controlling documents such as the specification of restaurant menus. Unlike processed food manufacturers, which use the make-to-stock production planning strategy, the restaurant industry that use the make-to-order strategy should face more difficulties in controlling the situation.

For many of us, dining out is a form of entertainment, we enjoy not only the food, but also the atmosphere of the restaurant. Regardless the size of restaurants, , they can start with what they can do to enhance the convenience of their customers, such as offering allergen information on menus, while stressing the importance in proper food descriptions.

Source: "Guidelines concerning menu labeling under the Act against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations" (Japanese)
http://www.caa.go.jp/representation/pdf/140328premiums_4.pdf

November 2015