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About the use of “-free” and “non-use” for labeling of additives
~From the discussions about the labeling system of food additives~

The 6th “discussion about the labeling system for food additives” was held at the Consumer Affairs Agency (CAA) on November 1, 2019. The discussion started in April 2019, mainly regarding the use of “-free” and “non-use” for labeling. Therefore, I would like to feature it here.

The current state of use of “-free” and “non-use” for labeling of additives

First, the current state of the labeling regulations regarding the use of “-free” and “non-use” is summarized in the CAA’s materials from the discussion as “Summary of issues (revised version of the 4th discussion materials 2)”. (However, this summary is based on “The Food Labeling Standards”, and there are other regulations related to the labeling of “-free” and “non-use” in the Fair Competition Code (the agreement or the regulation under Article 31 of the Act against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations).

  • ”Terms which mislead people into believing that the product is significantly better or more advantageous than it is in reality” and “other characters, pictures, photographs, etc. used for labeling and which mislead people about the content” are specified as prohibited items (Article 9, paragraph 1, item 1, 13, etc. of the Food Labeling Standard).
  • However, regarding sugar and sodium salt, as far as it satisfies some specific requirements, it is permitted to display “indication of ‘not added’” on the label (Article 7 of the Food Labeling Standard).
  • In case the same product category generally uses additives and the product does not use them, it is possible to indicate that no additives have been used on the label (Food Labeling Standard Q&A (last amended on July 1, 2019) Process-90).

In regards to the above, “terms which mislead people into believing that it is significantly better or more advantageous than it is in reality” and “other characters, pictures, photographs, etc. used for labeling and which mislead people about the contents” are specified as prohibited items (Article 9, paragraph 1, item 1, 13, etc. of the Food Labeling Standard), the explanation is written in the Food Labeling Standard Q&A (Process-281).

(Process-281) What are the “terms which mislead people into believing that it is significantly better or more advantageous than it is in reality” and “other characters, pictures, photographs, etc. used for labeling and which mislead people about the contents”, which items are prohibited for use for labeling?

(Answer)

  • Prohibited labeling items for processed foods are limited to those related to Article 3, 4, 6 and 7 (names, ingredients, additives, etc.)
  • Specifically, for example, it applies to the following:
    • Labeling falsely claiming the use of special ingredients in the product such as originated from specific areas or organic agricultural products even though it is not the case.
    • Labeling which misleads about the place of origin.
    • Labeling claiming “additive-free” for processed foods where additives are used.

Source: Food Labeling Standard Q&A (Process-281)

In the CAA’s materials for the discussion, “Additional materials (summary of the 5th discussion) (related to the point of argument 3)”, it is summarized that “Q&A Process-281 does not comprehensively offer an interpretation of Article 9 (prohibited labeling items)” and “standards to judge if a product falls under the prohibited labeling items in Article 9 of the Food Labeling Standard may be needed”.

Formulation of guidelines and consideration to revise Q&A

In the additional material, “-free” and “non-use”, which are regarded as an issue, are summarized. Related to this, it is recommended to check the Food Labeling Standard Q&A (Process-90), as it is likely to be reviewed.

  • Even though the use of processing aids in a product does not require its display on the label, you cannot write “non-use” on the label.

    →Possibility of conflict with Article 9, paragraph 1, item 13 (Q&A Process-90)

  • Simply write “additive-free”

    →Possibility of conflict with Article 9, paragraph 1, item 2

    →As it might be a problem to confuse it with the labeling of “non-use” of sugars and sodium salts, it is necessary to consider how consumers would recognize the simple label “-free”.

(Process-90) Is it allowed to write “additives are not used at all” or “additive-free” on labeling?

(Answer)

  • In case the same product category generally uses additives, but the product does not use any, it is possible to indicate that no additive has been used on the label. However, even though the use of processing aids or carry-overs doesn’t require their display on the label, it is not allowed to label it as a “non-use” product.
    Also, indicating “-free” only on the label does not clearly show what wasn’t added. Therefore, it is desirable to indicate a specific name.
  • In addition, in case the same category of product is generally free of additives in the first place, it is inappropriate to indicate that no additives have been used on the label.

Source: Food Labeling Standard Q&A (Process-90)

As proposals for possible measures, the “Review and addition of Q & A” and the presentation of guidelines by notification such as “Formulation of guidelines” are considered quite promising. By then, terms such as “synthetic”, “artificial” and “chemical seasoning” combined with “-free” and “non-use” are also expected to be sorted out (deleted from the 6th table attached to the Food Labeling Standard, presentation of guidelines by notification, etc.)

During the meeting discussions, they have also referred to the CODEX standards related to the use of “-free” and “non-use” for labeling. “The CODEX general guidelines for labeling claims 5.1(vi)” (CAC/GL 1-1979), states that “usually consumers expect the presence of additives in the product” and “Unless otherwise clearly stated, additives are not substituted by other substances with similar/equivalent effects on the product”. Therefore, I would recommend checking them as well.

Future schedules

The 7th discussion is scheduled to be held on December 19. It is planned to complete the report by the end of the fiscal year of 2019 (March 2020), (by the end of 2019 at the earliest), but if you are involved with labeling claim reviews, it is recommended to read through the discussion materials once in order to understand the background of the discussion.

References:
Discussion about the labeling system for food additives” (CAA)

January 2020