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Labelling Laws Fall Behind

Published: 10 Mar 2006

By Joe Lederman
© FoodLegal, March 2006.

Changes to the layouts of supermarkets and the increasing presence of large ‘warehouse’ style stores have led to a situation where food suppliers face serious legal issues and extra cost burdens to get their products legally acceptable for sale.

Some such laws regulate the labelling of foodstuffs, including the placement and visibility of specific information, such as the net weight of the product.

Under the Uniform Trade Measurement Regulations (which have been adopted by each Australian jurisdiction [except WA]), the package of a pre-packaged article must be marked with a statement of the measurement of the article, and this statement of measurement must be ‘clear, conspicuous, readily seen and easily read when the article is exposed for sale in the manner in which it is likely to be exposed for sale’ (s63).

In addition, where packaging is cylindrical, such as foods available in a can or bowl, the measurement marking must be positioned so that no part of it is further than 60° from the line that vertically bisects the centre of the displayed label (s65(2)). As a consequence of restricted shelf space available, this 60-degree visibility requirement is often not able to be met.

A second type of situation of labeling law not keeping up with changes in store formats is the situation of products being displayed as stacked items on pallets. Several laws require that the labeling format be based on the assumption that the front of the label is visible at eye level and that the goods will be displayed on a shelf. The law takes no account of the fact that goods sold from a stack on a pallet might not be at eye level and might be partially covered by a plastic shrink wrap from which the product can be lifted by the prospective buyer. Surely it ought to be acceptable for a product to be sold in this fashion - without necessarily requiring all of the product weight measurements to be repeated on the lid of the product. Yet some regulators might take a different view from retailers (and food suppliers) of what is “the manner in which the product is likely to be exposed for sale”.

New retail display methods are leading to uncertainty for producers trying to work out how to label their goods in accordance with the regulations. The law seems to assume that the front of the label will always be at eye level, as when goods are displayed on a shelf.  However if a retailer stacks the goods on the floor and customers must look down at them, the label is no longer visible and producers could be required to have the measurement clear on the lid. In this common situation, the ‘manner in which is it likely to be exposed for sale’ is not clear, so how can producers know how to label their products?

Surely a better rule would be that the measurement must be clear and easily seen when the product is inspected by the customer. There needs to be legislative change to rectify these current anomalies that are a hang-over from a bygone shopping era.