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Practical key points for compliance checking of food ingredients and food labels of export foods

In this column, I would like to summarize the practical points on how to deal with the differences among the "food labeling standards" of each country, which need to be checked when exporting food products from Japan to overseas. (This article is a partial summary of a lecture given on May 24, 2021, at Specified Non-Profit Organization "Science of Food Safety and Security (SFSS)")

If you're not sure where to start in checking

If you are new to exporting overseas and also have no experience in importing to Japan, you may not know where to start. In such a case, it is a good idea to organize related operations of checking food labels.

(Note: The URLs listed in 1. through 5. below are pages that refer to the Japanese standards. Some of them are also available in English.)

  1. Confirmation of permissions and approvals (notification to the competent government agency, application for the permission, etc.)
  2. Confirmation of food standards  (microorganisms, heavy metals, chemical substances, mycotoxin, pesticide residues, etc.)
  3. Confirmation of standards for use (ingredient name/ additive function name)
  4. Confirmation of food labeling standards (labeling methods, labeling items, prohibited labeling items, and claims)
  5. Confirmation of regulations on advertising content (the scientific basis for claims used in advertisements)

In this way, we can understand that there is a procedure to check the "standards of use" before checking food labels (labeling standards). There is also a procedure to check "food (and additive) standards" before checking the "standards of use" and these two procedures are important points that need to be considered apart from label-checking in some cases (or to be considered in correlating each other in other cases) for both export and import checking works.

Regarding preliminary survey for standards in each country

We recommend you first look for an easy-to-understand information website if you are trying to search for "food standards", "standards for use", or "food labeling standards". For Japanese "Standards for Foods and Additives in Various Countries" published by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan may be helpful. The summaries of the standards of about 30 countries are organized according to each category such as "food additives", "food labeling", "health claims/functional foods", "nutrition facts", "specific food standards", etc. This site is especially useful because you can get the whole picture (what kind of rules there are) from the "legal framework".

The final step is to directly check information (in the local language) on the competent government agency of the target country. However, it is sometimes difficult to reach the information needed in practice. In such cases, it may be helpful to first look for "guidelines written in English" and then identify a name of the relevant standard (standards for use of additives, food labeling standards, etc.) from the "name of the original regulation" (a source, a list of reference act names, etc.) listed in the guideline.

Regarding compliance checking of food ingredients

Most of the time must be spent on “compliance checking of food ingredients” (especially in confirming the use standards for additives) in both export and import works. However, it is not that difficult to find out standards for use of additives and official additive specifications written in the local language of the target country. In many cases, names of substances are listed in a table format along with their threshold values.

When you realize the additive used in your products does not meet standards for use, you need to find an alternative additive with similar functions. In that case, it also takes time to verify issues related to manufacturability and quality assurance issues such as claims for nutrients. In addition, it is difficult to find information on standards for use for ingredients (food materials) other than additives, so it takes more time including inquiries to the competent ministries and agencies in the target countries.

Regarding checking food labels

It is difficult to grasp all the labeling standards of each country when there are, let's say, 5 or 10countries to be covered. We recommend that you use "viewpoint of food labeling standards in Japan" as one guide.

As mentioned above, the following three points of the U.S standard in particular are very different from the Japanese system.

  • Labeling items (what to label)
  • Labeling method (how to label)
  • Prohibited labeling items (what must not be labeled)
×
  • Cross-sectional (for all foods) or not
  • ndividual (for a food category or specific condition) or not

Once you know the regulations, it's not so difficult to deal with food labeling standards such as what items must be labeled or how to label. However, unlike the list of additives, etc., it is not easy to find the relevant regulations in the documents written in the local language. Attention must be paid to a situation where labeling is mandatory under a specific condition, so it will be difficult to deal with a case where a lot of claims such as claims for product features.

Dealing with regulations such as "allergens must be highlighted" or "additives must be labeled with the substance name and E number" is not so difficult but it is difficult to deal with "designation of labeling location" or "claims" such as "if a specific ingredient name is indicated on a primary display panel of a container or packaging, its amount shall be indicated on the same surface of the container or packaging", "net weight must be indicated within 30% of a height of containers and packaging from the bottom line".

We need to be careful that "the viewpoint of food labeling standards in Japan" mentioned earlier should be limited to only when checking the relevant regulations from the target country's information (i.e., labeling items, labeling methods, prohibited labeling items, or whether they are cross-sectional or individual). Since we take Japan’s labeling method for granted (especially labeling order of ingredient list, weight calculation, names of additives, allergens, nutrition facts, or rounding of values), it can be an obstacle in some cases.

Important point

However, there are still many challenges in checking ingredients and labels while researching the actual standards of each country. It’s a good idea to keep in mind the following three points so that we can be aware of such issues during export work.

  1. Take time to check definitions of terms and requirements
  2. Make it possible to explain Japanese regulations
  3. Consider other standards (e.g. standards for use) that are linked to the labeling

As a point to note, it is important to separate "(food and ingredient) specifications" from "standards for use", and "standards for use" from "food labeling standards". For example, when we want to check an additive contained in a certain food, we may be required to check not only the standards for use (ratio, function, etc.) but also the specifications (ingredients, manufacturing method, etc.) of the additive. Since the specifications of the food product do not contain the specifications of the used additives, we first need to prepare the specifications of the additives(the used additive preparation) and confirm them. (When confirming ingredient mixing table items to be confirmed should be broadened to not only "additives" but also GMO ingredients or pharmaceutical Ingredients as a checking process of "standards of use".

There may be some cases where the mixing table of final products in the specifications from your ingredient manufacturer does not contain information on some additives such as carry-over or processing aids. They are exempt from labeling in the Japanese regulations but are required to confirm if they are allowed to use according to standards for use. It would be very difficult for a person who received the specifications to notice the existence of such additives in the cases of dealing with the specifications or mixing table in which there are no indications of such additives. When asking for the specifications of your ingredient manufacturer it is a good idea to clarify that you need the information of such additives because you need it to confirm standards for use of ingredients at the time of export.

Finally, it is also important to reconfirm that the definitions of terms such as carryover and requirements such as exemptions from labeling are the same in the checking process with local personnel in the target country. Take the example of "carbohydrate", there is a difference in calculation between Japan and the EU. It is important to be able to explain the Japanese regulations. I think it is important to consider whether changes to ingredients or labeling as a result of the survey will have an impact in conjunction with other standards.

Postscript

We would like to introduce gComply as a useful web tool. Documents related to the regulations of about 200 countries (mostly in local languages, but some in English) are stored in this database, and it has the advantage of allowing you to check the actual documents related to standards for the use of additives, food labeling, microorganisms, heavy metals, etc. Our company updates the database of the Japanese regulations and information is updated every two weeks. See the details here.

https://www.label-bank.co.jp/decernis_solutions/ (Japanese)

https://decernis.com/ (English)

August 2021