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Ask Sam...


Labelling rules

I bought a sandwich and when I got home I realised that its 'use by' date was two days ago. What should I do?

Don't eat the sandwich. You shouldn't eat any food product that has passed its 'use by' date, because it might not be safe to eat. In fact, it's illegal for shops to sell food after its 'use by' date.

You could take the sandwich back to the shop where you bought it and ask for an exchange or refund. Or you could contact the trading standards or environmental health service at your local authority. It is their responsibility to investigate if they think a shop is not obeying the law, and to take appropriate action. If you decide to contact your local authority, you may need to make a statement and give them the food product and packaging as evidence.

But remember that 'use by' dates are different to other dates you may see on food products. It's not illegal for shops to sell food after its 'best before', 'sell by' or 'display until' date.

If a food contains trans fats, do they have to be mentioned in the ingredients and the nutritional information on the label?

Trans fats (also called trans fatty acids) don't have to be included in the nutritional information provided on a food label unless a specific trans fats claim has been made such as 'low in trans fats'. And they don't need to be listed in the ingredients.

However, trans fats can be formed during the process of hydrogenation, which means that some foods that contain hydrogenated vegetable oil also contain trans fats. Hydrogenated vegetable oil must be declared in the ingredients list. This means that if the ingredients list includes hydrogenated vegetable oil, there may also be trans fats in the product.

Trans fats count as part of the total fat in the nutritional information on the label. They are not classed as saturates, monounsaturates or polyunsaturates, so they won't be included in the figures for these.

Trans fats have a similar effect on blood cholesterol to saturated fats. They raise the type of cholesterol in the blood that increases the risk of coronary heart disease. Some evidence suggests that the effects of these trans fats may be worse than saturated fats.

It's important to try to eat less of both saturated fat and trans fats. Food high in saturated fat includes meat, sausages, meat pies, hard cheese, butter, cakes, pastries, biscuits and food containing coconut or palm oil. Generally, people eat a lot more saturated fat than trans fats.

Is a shop allowed to sell food that has passed its 'sell by' date?

'Sell by' dates, like 'Display until' dates, are used by some shops to help staff know when they need to take food products off the shelves. It is up to the manufacturer or shop if it wants to put a 'Sell by' or 'Display until' date on packaged foods. But they must also have either a 'Use by' or 'Best before' date.

Since the 'Sell by' date is just a guide to shop staff, it isn't against the law to sell a food after it. However, shops mustn't sell foods that have passed their 'Use by' date. And you shouldn't eat foods after their 'Use by' date because they might not be safe to eat. 'Use by' dates are used on foods that go off quickly, such as milk, soft cheese, ready-prepared meals and smoked fish.

You will see 'Best before' dates on foods that last longer, such as frozen, dried or tinned foods. Shops are allowed to sell foods after their 'Best before' date (except eggs) and they will probably still be safe to eat.

But if you buy foods after their 'Best before' date, bear in mind that they might not be as good to eat as they were before. They might have started to lose their flavour or texture. The one food you shouldn't eat after its 'Best before' date is eggs. This is because eggs can contain salmonella bacteria, which could start to multiply after this date.

Do sachets have to give ingredients and 'best before' dates?

What information must be on a sachet depends on the size of the sachet. Small sachets of salt, sugar and vinegar only need to be labelled with the name of the food. Small sachets of other foods, including hot chocolate, should give either a 'Best before' or 'Use by' date, as well as the food name.

If the largest surface of a sachet is more than 10 square centimetres then it must give the following information:
  • name of the food
  • list of ingredients in descending weight order
  • percentages after the main ingredients to show what proportion of the food they make up
  • 'best before' or 'use by' date
  • any special instructions about how to store the food and any conditions of use (for example what it is not suitable for)
  • name and address of the manufacturer, packer or seller
  • instructions on how to use the product
  • place of origin of the food, if not giving this information might mislead people

Do I need to label cakes and jams sold for charity?

If you sell food for a charity, you might have to follow food labelling regulations. There isn't a straightforward answer to whether the regulations will apply to you or not because this will depend on how the food is sold and the organisation or charity selling them.

In general, the Food Labelling Regulations 1996 don't apply to food that isn't prepared as part of a business. So this means that most food being sold for charity won't need to be labelled, including food sold at one-off events such as church fêtes and school fairs.

But if you regularly sell packaged food for charity (for example, jars of jam or boxed cakes), you might have to follow the regulations. This is still the case if you don't make a profit.

Foods that are sold loose don't need to be labelled. So if you sell unpackaged cakes and buns, you wouldn't need to label them even if you sell them regularly. However, if any of the ingredients had been irradiated or genetically modified, you would need to declare this.

To find out more about what regulations apply to your situation, contact the trading standards department at your local authority. You may also need to follow food hygiene regulations – ask the environmental health department at your local authority for more information.

If you're not legally required to label a food, you could do it voluntarily, giving the product name, a list of ingredients (in descending order of weight) and details of any ingredients that could cause an allergic reaction, such as nuts. If you do label a food, you must make sure that the information you provide is accurate.

If fish has been farmed, does it have to say so on the label?

The label on pre-packed fish must show how it has been produced, for example, 'farmed', 'cultivated' , 'caught' or 'caught in fresh water'. The label must also state:
  • the name of the fish (according to rules about what species can be sold under certain names)
  • the catch area, for example, 'north-west Atlantic'
The label doesn't have to show the production method if it's obvious from the name and the catch area that the fish was caught at sea, for example, 'Atlantic salmon'.

When fish is sold loose at a fish counter, the same rules apply. The information will generally be displayed on a sign next to the fish.

Is it legal to sell products past their 'best before' date?

Shops are allowed to sell food after its 'best before' date has passed. 'best before' dates are concerned with quality rather than safety, so it doesn't mean that the food is dangerous if the 'best before' date has passed. However, if you buy food after the date, remember that it might no longer be at its best.

'Use by' dates are different to 'best before' dates and it is against the law to sell any food that has passed its 'use by' date. Using it after this date could put your health at risk.

In all cases, whether or not the 'best before' date has expired, the law says that food sold must not put people's health at risk and must not be falsely or misleadingly described or presented.

What are the rules for labelling foods that contain GM ingredients?

A food that contains or consists of genetically modified (GM) ingredients must say so on the label. However, labelling isn't required for:

  • small amounts of genetically modified (GM) ingredients that are accidentally present in non-GM food (below 0.9% for GM crop varieties that have been approved for sale and 0.5% for GM varieties that have received a favourable assessment from a European Commission scientific committee but have not yet been formally approved)
  • food from animals, such as meat, milk, eggs, that have been given GM feed
  • food produced with help from a GM processing aid, such as chymosin, which is used to make some hard cheeses
Some food manufacturers are labelling their food as 'GM-free'. However, there is no legally agreed definition in Europe of what this term means. Any food on sale labelled 'GM-free' is subject to the general requirements of food law, in particular the Food Safety Act 1990. This Act makes it an offence to describe, by way of labelling or advertising, a food falsely, or in a way likely to mislead as to its nature, substance or quality.

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