Running a café or restaurant can be very delicate work. Whenever you work with food, you have a unique responsibility for the health and wellbeing of your customers. You also have to take your customer’s ethical choices into consideration.
There are certain rules and regulations that you must follow by law when it comes to food labelling. In this guide, we’ll try to cover the most important, as well as show you where to go to find more information.
Where do these rules apply?
The rules in this guide apply to England and Wales only.
If your business is based in Scotland, have a look at the Food Standards Agency’s Scottish site instead.
Prepacked or non-prepacked food
The rules which apply differ depending on whether you’re providing prepacked or non-prepacked food. If you’re running a restaurant or café, the rules on prepacked food are unlikely to apply to you. And the good news is that the rules are simpler for non-prepacked food!
Prepacked food is defined as food that’s supplied to you already packaged up by someone else (for example, one of your suppliers). Non-prepacked food is sold unwrapped or wrapped by you on your premises. Generally speaking, most restaurants and cafés serve food which is not prepacked.
This definition is based on the wording of EU Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011, which says:
‘prepacked food’ means any single item for presentation as such to the final consumer and to mass caterers, consisting of a food and the packaging into which it was put before being offered for sale, whether such packaging encloses the food completely or only partially, but in any event in such a way that the contents cannot be altered without opening or changing the packaging; ‘prepacked food’ does not cover foods packed on the sales premises at the consumer’s request or prepacked for direct sale;
How to label
What do we mean when we say “labelling”? Labelling essentially means descriptive information about the product, such as its contents, how it was produced or processed, and whether it contains any allergens etc. Labelling helps your customers make informed choices about what they’re eating.
Where to label
If it’s possible, you should try to include the information on the product itself – for example, a label on the packaging containing the product.
If that’s not possible, you can include the information on a notice – for example, in your menu, or on a sign near the product on a shelf.
However, when it comes to allergen information, you can just provide the information to customers verbally. All you need to include is a notice which advises customers that they can ask for allergen information.
For non-prepacked food, you must include the following information in your labelling:
- The name of the product (see ‘food names’ below)
- Any allergens present in the product
- If the product contains meat, you should say how much of the product is made of meat (see ‘meat products’ below)
- If the product is irradiated, you should mention this too (see ‘irradiated products’)
(For information on what the requirements are for prepacked food, have a look at this page.)
If the product contains meat as one of its ingredients, you must specify what percentage of the product is actually meat. This is called the quantitative ingredient declaration (QUID).
Some food is irradiated to kill bugs or bacteria, or just to increase its shelf-life. If any food you’re serving has been irradiated – or if any of the individual ingredients have been irradiated – you should include one of the following in your labelling for that product:
- Treated with ionising radiation
Whichever statement you choose, it should appear close to the name of the food.
When it comes to actually naming or describing the food you serve, and the ingredients they contain, there are rules which you must follow.
Here are some specific examples:
- Chicken fillet and breast – You can’t use either of these descriptions if the chicken has been chopped or shaped. You should also make sure that the meat is 100% chicken meat, and doesn’t contain other ingredients too. If it is made up from other ingredients, you should make this clear to customers.
- Crab – You should be careful not to confuse crab (which is made from actual crab meat) with crabsticks (which are made from starch and pulverised white fish).
- King prawn – “King prawn” can only be used to describe one of the following species of prawn:
It can also only be used if the count is less than 123 per kg (head on/shell on) or less than 198 per kg (head off/shell on) or less than 242 per kg (head off/shell off).
- Margarine – Margarine shouldn’t be confused with butter (for example, don’t say “bread and butter” if you’re using margarine instead of butter).
- Meat products – Certain meat products (for example, beef burgers, pasties, pies, sausages, and sausage rolls) must meet certain compositional requirements on the amount of meat they contain. As an example, a pork sausage must contain 32% pork or more. You can read more about the requirements here.
- Roast – You can’t call something roasted if it’s been steamed or flash roasted. When it refers to roast meat, that meat must have been cooked in a conventional oven for at least 30 minutes at a temperature which is high enough to give all the characteristics of roasted meat.
- Scampi – The name “scampi” or “wholetail” can only be used for wholetails of the species Nephrops norvegicus (otherwise known as the Norway lobster, Dublin Bay prawn or a langoustine). If what your serving is made from reformed pieces of scampi, you must describe it as “reformed scampi”.
- Smoked – Unsurprisingly, you can only describe a food as being smoked if it’s been subjected to a smoking process. So if you’ve only added a smoke flavouring, you should describe it as “smoke flavour” instead.
- Tiger prawn – “Tiger prawn” can only be used to describe one of these specific species of prawn:
- Parapenaeopsis hardwickii
- Parapenaeopsis sculptilis
- Penaeus esculentus
- Penaeus japonicus
- Penaeus kerathurus
- Penaeus monodon
- Penaeus semisulcatus
- Vegetarian – To describe a dish as vegetarian is must not contain any meat or any ingredients which have come into contact with meat. This means you’ll need to use separate oil for frying vegetarian food if you’re also frying meat. You’ll also need to carefully check the ingredients of any sauces or additional ingredients. You should also make sure you use separate utensils and surfaces to prepare vegetarian food.
- Vinegar – Make sure it’s actually vinegar and not “non-brewed condiment”.
Protected food names
The names of some foods have protected status, which means that they must be made from certain ingredients or come from a specific region.
There are different kinds of protected statuses:
- Protected geographical indication (PGI) – This covers foods which must come from a particular area (specifically, it must have been either produced, processed or prepared in a particular area). Examples include Traditional Cumberland sausage (which must have been produced in Cumbria, have a meat content of at least 80% and must be sold in a coil rather than as links), or Scotch beef (which must have been produced in Scotland).
- Protected designation of origin (PDO) – A PDO covers foods which must be produced, processed and prepared in one area and must also have distinct characteristics from that area. It differs from a PGI because all three stages must have happened in the same place. Examples include Single Gloucester cheese (which must have been produced, processed and prepared in Gloucestershire using traditional methods.
- Traditional speciality guaranteed (TSG) – Food protected with the TSG mark must have a traditional name and characteristics which distinguish it from other similar products. Those characteristics can’t be based on the area the product’s made in or purely on technological advances in the production process. Examples include traditional farmfresh turkey (which must involved turkeys that are over 20 weeks old, have been dry plucked, hung to mature, and then eviscerated).
You can find a full list of all protected food names in the UK here.
Additional labelling requirements
As well as the requirements we’ve mentioned above, there are a few other rules you must follow:
- You should make sure your portion sizes are accurate – for example, “six chicken nuggets” or a “½ roast chicken”.
- If your food contains raw milk, you should explain this in the labelling – for example, “Milk supplied in this establishment hasn’t been heat-treated and therefore may contain organisms harmful to health”. This applies to cheese which has been made from unpasteurised milk.
- If any of your food is cooked in genetically modified (GM) oil, you should let your customers know.
- If you want to include calorie or nutritional information along with your food, you should get advice from your local trading standards or environmental health service. You can read more information about this here.
Breaking the law when it comes to food labelling can have serious repercussions for you and for your business. Possible penalties can include a fine or imprisonment, and may result in your business being shut down.
To read more about the powers of trading standards officers, check this guide.
Food assurance schemes
By joining these schemes and displaying their marks on your labels or menus, you can show customers that the products you’re serving comply with certain standards (for example, when it comes to food safety or animal welfare).
You can find more information about food assurance schemes on the GOV.UK website.
Here are some links to the legislation relevant to the rules covered in this guide:
- Fish Labelling Regulations 2013
- Food Information Regulations 2013
- Food Safety Act 1990
- Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011
- Regulation (EC) No 1383/2003
Bear in mind: We’ve done our best to make sure the information in this guide is accurate but we’re not experts. Please make sure you check with your local authority and the Food Standard Agency before you take any action. Remember to seek expert advice!