Consumers `ripped off' by food labels

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The Independent Online

Cheese pizzas that contain no cheese, "fresh" turkeys that have been frozen and "chicken" which contains pork are just three of the ways in which consumers are being ripped off by food producers, according to a new survey.

The Consumers' Association reveals today that food producers are skimping on expensive ingredients by mixing them or swapping them with cheaper ones.

Labelling can also mislead consumers - food mentioned in the product name is not always being contained in any quantity in the packet.

In four government studies, 95 out of 874 samples of breaded scampi, battered fish products, instant coffees or vegetable oils were thought to be illegally adulterated or falsely described. And a check by trading standards officers in Durham in May 1995 showed that 10 out of 11 pizzas examined contained up to 95 per cent of a substitute "cheese" made of skimmed milk and vegetable oil.

In Sheffield, a public analyst bought 16 "fresh" turkeys from shops or markets and found that five had been frozen. The birds were being sold for twice the price of frozen poultry - and could have been a health hazard if frozen again.

Also in Sheffield, 13 out of 54 samples of "minced beef" contained other meat such as lamb and pork. "Halal" meat also contained pork, which eventually led to a pounds 15,000 fine. And some market traders were selling turkey meat as chicken.

Meat often caused problems - in the United Kingdom "meat" can mean the flesh along with fat, skin, rind, gristle and sinew. The word "ham" can be used for a food which contains other ingredients. It may be highly processed and contain substances such as soya and milk protein.

Food was not alone in causing problems. In 1994 licensees at a pub in Humberside faced fines of pounds 2,500 for stocking adulterated drinks after trading standards officers found brands of whisky diluted by 12 and 13 per cent water.

The Food Safety Act, the Trades Description Act, the Consumer Protection Act and the Weights and Measures Act all aim to protect consumers by making it an offence to describe food in a misleading way.

But the association says that legislation is not comprehensive enough and is subject to different interpretations.

It wants tinned products to give clear indication of drained weights, and says that added water should be declared. According to the CA, more detailed labelling - quantitative ingredient declarations (QUID) should be introduced by Europe as soon as possible, and definitions for simple terms such as "meat" tidied up.

The managing editor of Which? magazine Charlotte Gann said today: "Consumers have long had to cope with foods which aren't all they seem.

"But food adulteration has now become more sophisticated than ever before - and is harder to detect and prove.

"The law has to be tightened up. If it were more effectively enforced, most of the problems would not exist."