China takes big step forward in nutrition labelling
packaged foods which, although not mandatory, will standardise
presentation of information on products that already state nutrient
Jie Hu, Asia advisor at Brussels-based regulatory consultancy EAS, explained to FoodNavigator.com that there is presently no requirement for foods in China to bear nutrition labelling. While the new guidelines do not make such labelling mandatory per se, Hu expects that more manufacturers will actually start using nutrition labels in a bid to prevent the government imposing stringent regulations in the future. Under the new guidelines, all foods carrying nutrition labels or health and nutrition claims will have to convey levels of energy, protein, fat, carbohydrates and sodium - in that order - per 100g or per 100ml or per serving. They will also have to label nutrient content as a percentage of the nutrient reference value (NRV). When health and nutrition claims are made on packaging, the guidelines set out restrictions including font size and on-pack positioning. Labelling of fatty acids, sugar, vitamins and minerals remains optional - although they may be required in some export markets. Companies have until April 30 2010 to comply with the guidelines. However Hu pointed out that the guidelines contain the allowance that the Ministry of Health may set further mandatory nutrition labelling requirements for some foods if consumer needs are seen to merit it. "Industry self-regulation, such as voluntary compliance with the guidelines, could plan a huge role in ensuring that the authorities do not decide in the future that there is a need for further legislation," said Hu. In general, she said, it is foods for exports that currently tend to carry nutrition labels, so as to conform with the regulations at their destination. However there is a vast range of different format currently in play. It is not known - even by the Ministry of Health - what proportion of packaged foods do not bear any nutrition labelling. "China has introduced this for a number of reasons," said Hu, "- to guide consumer choices towards a more balanced diet, to promote nutrition-related education, and to standardise food labelling to facilitate trade." The guidelines are based on Codex guidelines, so as long as the destination countries also have nutrient labelling schemes based on Codex then there should not be a big difference, Hu said. In context with the lack of standardisation in food labelling in China up until now, the introduction of the guidelines marks a major step forward for the country. It also comes at a time when the European Union is debating how to standardise nutrition labelling across its member states. A draft proposal of the new Food Information Act was circulated at the end of January this year. It is currently the subject of hot debate by the European Parliament and Council of Ministers.