The NHC has released draft GB7718 (General Rules for the Labelling of Pre-Packaged Foods) for public consultation.
This proposes amending the labelling standard to better protect consumers from exposure to potentially false or misleading labelling information.
It includes changing the way product information is declared, including making the allergen labelling mandatory, where it is currently voluntary.
The draft standard also aims to strengthen rules in making certain food claims. For instance, “non-GMO”, “free…”, and “not contain…” will not be allowed unless otherwise permitted by law or would be subjected to rigorous criteria.
Definition of pre-packaged food
Under the draft GB7718, pre-packaged food is defined as “Food pre-packaged or made up in packaging materials and/or containers, including foods prepackaged or made up in advance with a measured quantity in packaging materials and containers with unified labeling of quality, volume and length within certain range or food prepackaged in advance or made up in packaging materials and containers and sold by weight.”
Pre-packaged food in the draft standard would apply to food sold directly to consumers as well as the food sold for further processing such as food ingredients. The draft also includes a separate section for imported food products.
Impact on manufacturers
These proposed changes are expected to bring significant implications to current labelling practices for both locally produced and imported foods.
Jenny Xin Li, senior regulatory counselor at Keller and Heckman LLP told FoodNavigator-Asia: “For instance, allergen labeling becomes mandatory in the draft proposal. Allergens in the standard would not only include added ingredients but also allergens that may be indirectly carried over into the finished food during the manufacturing process.”
She also said “negative claims” have been one of the heavily enforced food labeling matters in China because the government is concerned about misleading consumers and potentially unfair competition.
“For example, claims such as ‘free of artificial colours’, ‘no added food additives’ and ‘non-GMO’ are commonly seen on food labels of the products sold in the market,” Li said.
“To address these concerns, the revised draft standard is intended to regulate these claims. For example, ‘free of artificial colours’ cannot be claimed on the label if no artificial colour is permitted [in the first place]. Another example is banning the claim ‘non-GMO food’ if the product does not use GMO ingredients unless otherwise prescribed by the regulations.”
Better consumer protection
In coming up with the draft, the government looked into the most commonly complained labeling issues reported by consumers and sought to address them.
For instance, over the past few years, ‘professional consumers’ have been going after the food industry for alleged labeling violations.
‘Professional consumers’ is a term used to identify an individual or group of individuals who are not bona fide purchasers and seek to take advantage of food laws that offer 10 times compensation to bona fide consumers who purchase products that do not comply with applicable food laws.
Li said this has resulted in a massive number of litigated cases and administrative reports, which have led to a significant waste of resources for both the government and industry. Therefore, the draft GB7718 has made the efforts to increase the clarity of some requirements and further guide the industry and publish as to what is allowed and what is not.
The public have until February 28, 2020 to submit feedback online. The government has not announced when the amended standard will be implemented, although Li believed, “It is very likely that the government would provide a transition period for the industry to follow the new labeling standard.”