Co-op sets out to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth

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The Independent Online
The Co-Op is to scrap misleading food labels in a drive for honesty. Louise Jury looks at the tricks of the food manufacturing trade which are coming under fire.

Nothing at Co-Op will be "wholesome" or "premium" from now on, as the supermarket goes for honesty as the best policy.

Meaningless adjectives will be abandoned in favour of labels which actually tell you what is inside. Pictures on the packet will be mouth-watering only if the food is exactly that.

In a report, The Lie of the Label, published today, the supermarket identifies "seven deadly sins" - routine tricks of the trade committed by manufacturers. It argues that regulations covering labelling are not strict enough and presents a set of guidelines for "openness and honesty".

Criticism is levelled at poor labelling, such as a product called "mince and onions" where the main ingredient is mechanically recovered chicken. The report highlights how nutritional information such as "90 per cent fat-free" disguises the fact that it contains 10 per cent fat.

In future, Co-Op's own products will be packaged to new standards and it is calling on the rest of the industry to follow suit. The move comes only days after it was one of several shops "named and shamed" by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for failing to declare added water in pork products.

Wendy Wrigley, head of food labelling standards, said the food industry was misleading consumers.

"Shoppers have very little idea of the extent to which their trust is being betrayed. We need tough new measures to curb the tricks of the trade and clean up food labelling - 98 per cent of consumers say they support a new code of practice.'

Although there are many existing rules and regulations, the report claims there are lots of different ways of obeying the letter of the law while failing to live up to the spirit of the legislation.

It suggests that its code of practice should be enforced by the Government's new Food Standards Agency when it starts operating and the Co-Op wants to discuss the idea with other retailers and manufacturers.

Among the "tricks" the Co-Op describes are:

The grand illusion - labels that do not tell the whole truth on the front of the pack. If you look at the back, the information makes you realise the product is not what you thought by looking at it;

The half truth - labels that tell you on the front what is not in the product instead of what is. Examples include "reduced fat" or "low fat";

Weasel words - labels that use a word that makes the product sound better than it is. Examples include using the word steak, as in "fish steak" when they mean portion;

The hidden truth - labels where important legally-required information is hidden away where it is difficult to see. Examples include the name of any sweeteners used;

The small print - where you need a magnifying glass to read everything apart from the "hard sell" the manufacturer wants you to see.

However, a spokeswoman for the Food and Drink Federation said the vast majority of the food industry was responsible and it was wrong to suggest that food labelling was not governed by strict regulation already. "Labels are subject to stringent controls and manufacturers voluntarily include more information on labels because it's what consumers want," she said.

"Inevitably there are some rogues and we are as keen as any one to stamp out unethical practices."

Jeff Rooker, the food safety minister, said the Government wanted better, clear labels that gave consumers as much information as possible, and that some changes in labelling were already under way.

In bad taste

Examples of what Co-Op is objecting to:

Digestive biscuits described as "reduced fat" simply meaning 25 per cent less fat than something similar.

"Traditional lemonade" unless it really is made for at least two generations by the same process.

"Haddock fillets" made up of blocks of fish, not single fillets.

Pasta described as "free from preservatives" when that is normal, not a virtue. Dried pasta is not permitted by law to contain preservatives.