The Devil is in the detail - Food and drink labelling changes from 1 January 2021

United KingdomScotland

15 October 2020 was the date by which any “Deal” with the EU had to be made. That date has passed without a final agreement. Perhaps as a result, a raft of updated Government Guidance has been published clarifying the requirements for labelling and packaging of food and drink in readiness for the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020. The Guidance now covers a range of topics in addition to those mentioned below, such as the regulation of markets for fruit and vegetables, eggs and honey blends.

This should provide some comfort for Food Business Operators (FBO) and be well received by the food and drink industry who have long urged the Government to consider measures for periods of adjustment. However, despite these Government notes, uncertainty remains, as the full picture is subject to matched agreements with the EU, negotiations with devolved administrations and legislation passing through Parliament. At the time of writing, these are still awaited.

Subject to this, we highlight some key changes, but recommend a careful review of the Guidance relevant to you. Broadly, the indication is that food of animal origin (FOAO) which was placed on the market in the EU before 1 January 2021, can continue to circulate within the EU market without any labelling changes. Food of non-animal origin (non-FOAO) placed on the market in either the EU or the UK before 1 January 2021 can continue to circulate both in the EU and UK markets without labelling changes. “Placed on the market” is explained as “when it is first supplied for distribution, consumption, or commercial use, whether free of charge or not” (Withdrawal Agreement 2018).

Which address on the label?

FBOs have been seeking guidance on if and when a UK or EU address will be required for some time. Guidance published on 14 October 2020 advises that there will be a transition period for changing the FBO address on UK packaging. FBOs can continue to use an EU, Great Britain or Northern Ireland address for the FBO on pre-packaged food sold in Great Britain until 30 September 2022. However, from 1 October 2022, pre-packaged food sold in Great Britain must include a UK address for the FBO. If the FBO is not in the UK, the address of the UK importer must be included on the label.

However, the reverse is not yet the case. Pre-packaged food exported to the EU from 1 January 2021 must have an EU or Northern Ireland address for the FBO, or an address of the EU or NI importer on the packaging or food label. There is no transition period. Accordingly, labels must be urgently updated for products placed on the market after that date.

In practice despite the UK’s transition, FBOs trading in both the UK and the EU may find it more cost-effective to make a composite label change in readiness for 1 January 2021.

EU health and identification marks

Guidance was published on 15 October 2020 by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in respect of health and identification marks that must be applied to food products of animal origin (POAO). From 1 January 2021 onwards, new health and identification marks must be used for POAO produced and placed on the market in Great Britain and Northern Ireland or exported outside of the UK. The Guidance provides detail on the specific requirements in terms of font and dimensions for the new health and identification marks.

Although legislation is being proposed to allow a twenty-one-month transition period to give producers time to make these labelling changes and deplete existing stock carrying the existing mark, the legislation has not yet been passed and so the Guidance remains at the time of writing as above.

Organic logos and country of origin

The UK will have its own laws for the production, processing and labelling of organic food and feed from 1 January 2021. Food products registered as organic in the EU on that date will continue to be accepted as such in the UK. The UK organic control body logo can continue to be used in this regard.

However, whether the EU will continue to accept food and feed registered in the UK as organic and whether the EU organic logo may be used from January 2021 is less certain. The answer depends on whether the relevant UK control body is authorised by the EU to certify UK goods for export to the EU and also whether the UK and the EU reach an equivalency deal (i.e. agreeing to recognise one another's standards). At the time of writing, although applications are being considered by the EU (for example the Soil Association), the Guidance recommends that manufacturers contact their control body for the latest updates.

The Guidance also refers to country of origin labels. Products from Northern Ireland can continue to use 'origin EU' on their labels. Food from Great Britain however, cannot be labelled as “origin EU” on the EU market from 1 January 2021. In contrast there is a transition period for such product labelled as “origin EU” on the GB market until 30 September 2022. Nevertheless, the EU emblem must not be included on goods produced in Great Britain from 1 January 2021, unless the EU have provided authorisation. This remains uncertain.

Geographical indication logos

On 13 October 2020 more Guidance confirms that the UK will set up its own Geographical Indication (GI) scheme to protect the geographical names of food, drink and agricultural products, to be managed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Examples include Cornish pasties, Stilton Blue cheese and Welsh lamb. The scheme will be open to producers from the UK and other countries and will use the following designations:

  • Protected Designation of Origin
  • Protected Geographical Indication
  • Traditional Speciality Guaranteed

New UK GI logos have been released and are available to download now for use from 1 January 2021 in respect of each of the above designations. A three year transition period (to 1 January 2024) has been put in place to allow manufacturers and retailers of GI food and agricultural products time to add these logos to their packaging and marketing materials, provided the products are for sale in Great Britain and were registered as GI products before 1 January 2021. Manufacturers and retailers of GI products for sale in Great Britain and registered after 1 January 2021 must use the relevant new logo on any product packaging or marketing materials as soon as the product is registered.

For manufacturers and retailers of GI products in Northern Ireland, it will be mandatory to continue using EU logos for products sold in Northern Ireland (if the product is registered under the EU GI scheme). It will be optional to use the new UK logos if the product is registered under the UK GI scheme.

The new UK logos are optional for producers of wine and spirit GIs. GI products that are protected in the EU can continue to use the EU logo in the UK after the transition period comes to an end.

Our guidance

As is clear from the above – there are a few nuggets of certainty and much that remains to be resolved. Our best advice to FBOs endeavouring to ensure compliant labelling and packaging is to take note of the fact that the “devil is in the detail”. Links to the Guidance in full can be accessed here:

The areas flagged above are a selection of those currently under review, and there will be further Guidance and legislative changes shortly given the imminence of the end of the current transition period – we will be tracking and reporting via Law-Now.

If we can be of assistance in this, then please contact us.