UK Food Agency Calls for Clearer Date Labeling

The Food Standards Agency also issued guidance last week to help manufacturers remove six food colors from their products.

Two new guidance documents issued by Britain's Food Standards Agency are going to help consumers more easily understand "use by" date labels on their food products and also make some products healthier. The second document tells manufacturers how to remove six colors from food products because research has shown they may be linked to hyperactivity in children who consume them.

Both documents were issued Sept. 15.

FSA and Defra, another government agency, jointly published the guidance to help the food industry decide whether their products require a "use by" or "best before" date. FSA said under the new, voluntary guidelines, food packaging should use only "use by" or "best before" date labels to make it easier for shoppers to know when food is at its best and how long it is safe to eat. "Sell by" and "display until" labels used for stock rotation should be removed to avoid confusion for shoppers, and retailers should explore different ways of tracking stock control, according to the agency.

Liz Redmond, who heads Hygiene and Microbiology at FSA, said there is a lot of confusion among customers about date marks. "A number of different dates can be found on our food, so we need to make sure that everyone knows the difference between them. We always emphasise that 'use by' dates are the most important, as these relate to food safety. This new guidance will give greater clarity to the food industry on which date mark should be used on their products while maintaining consumer protection."

It is a violation to sell food after the "use by" date, but retailers can -- with the exception of eggs -- sell products after the "best before" date, providing it is safe to eat. Eggs have a "best before" date but should not be eaten after the date shown on the label.

FSA's guidance on food colors said combinations of these six permitted colors and the preservative sodium benzoate could be linked to increased hyperactivity in some children. The colors are sunset yellow (E110), quinoline yellow (E104), carmoisine (E122), allura red (E129), tartrazine (E102), and ponceau 4R (E124). Some manufacturers and retailers have already acted to remove them, and the agency said it encourages others to work toward finding alternatives and voluntarily withdraw the colors as requested by UK Ministers and the Food Standards Agency in 2008. The guidance includes technical details with more information about alternative colors that may be appropriate.

The guidance was commissioned by the Food Standards Agency in Scotland and produced by Campden BRI. FSA is an independent government department created by an Act of Parliament in 2000 to protect the public's health and consumer interests in relation to food. It represents the British government on food safety and standards issues in the European Union.

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