The initiative is being overseen by Japan’s Consumer Affairs Agency (CAA) in response to the rapid rise of online platform sales in recent years, fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The guidelines were based on a survey conducted by the CAA in Japan last year to understand consumer requirements and any discrepancies between foods and beverages sold via e-commerce and the actual conditions of these upon arrival.
“In recent years, food product purchases via e-commerce sites have been steadily increasing, a trend accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic – but on the other hand, food labelling standards in Japan do not cover the display and publishing of food-related information on these websites,” said the CAA via a formal statement,
“Current food labelling standards in Japan only cover the information labelled on the physical containers and packaging of food and beverage products, and as a result of this there have been big discrepancies found between the information on the actual products and that published on the websites [on several occasions].
“Based on these concerns, CAA has conducted [several] studies into this issue and developed this handbook of guidelines to provide a standard set of directions for this information to be published, so as to ensure consumers receive accurate information and food safety is assured for all.”
The agency stressed that a variety of recommended labelling options have been provided in the guidelines, and food firms are advised to use the ones that can best apply to their products.
Two particular areas of concern highlighted in the guidelines were how to clearly display expiration dates online, as well as how to accurately inform consumers about food allergens in the products.
“Providing expiration date information online is more challenging than putting the date on the actual packaging, as this could differ based on the logistics of delivery and the batch differences between when the product was listed online versus when it is ordered confirmed for delivery as multiple batches tend to be mixed, received and shipped,” said CAA.
“As such, when listing such deadlines on the site, firms are advised to focus on the time remaining for consumption - it would of course be best if able to put a specific date up that is accurate, but given the logistical difficulty, there are other potential options too.
“For instance, on the online platform they can give consumers guarantees that the products sold will be good for consumption for a certain number of days from the date of delivery, stating ‘Arrival date + x number of days’ guaranteed fresh’ or ‘We will only deliver products that can last for more than x days to you’.”
There are also options for foods with long shelf lives (e.g. preserved or canned products) to display less specific best-by dates of ‘180 days’ or ‘two months frozen’, or foods that are produced at a specific date for festive seasons e.g. Christmas cakes to display expiration dates back-calculated from date of manufacture, amongst others.
Another area of focus is food allergens, and for this the firms have been advised to focus on making allergen display notices as obvious and noticeable as possible, whether by using stand-out text or by using graphics.
“The use of prominent lettering (bold, underline, etc.) or creating specific lists to display on the website are a good way to warn consumers of allergens in the product,” said the agency.
“We also encourage more illustrative displays, e.g. showing illustrations of allergens and colouring in only the allergens that apply, or using both text and illustrations together to make this even clearer which is even easier for consumers to understand.”
CAA has opened up the draft guidelines for comment, and the industry may do so via any of the methods listed here.
Soon to be international
The CAA also highlighted that similar standards are also being discussed at an international level, and this move by Japan is a pre-emptive one to assure it stays in line, or even slightly ahead, of international changes.
“The Codex Alimentarius Committee which establishes international standards for foods is also currently discussing the formulation of standards related to the publishing of food information on e-commerce sites, [so] Japan is not alone in doing this,” stated CAA.
“In addition, [the continuous rise in e-commerce prominence] means that such information is expected to be regulated some time in the future, and for that reason Japan may review these guidelines from time to time to stay consistent with international standards.”