The first job of a food label is to catch the consumer’s eye. A good label makes us want to try what’s inside the package. A label accomplishes this by being attractive and by telling the product’s story. What is it? Why should we want to buy and eat it? The story may vary a great deal depending on the product. But there are some elements of the story that each and every food product label is required to tell. These elements are mandated by federal labeling regulations.
Food labeling regulations are designed to ensure a consumer has all the information about the product he or she needs to make an informed buying decision. More specifically, the regulations ensure a consumer can reliably find accurate information on a food product label regarding product identity, quality, nutrition, and relevant health and safety information.
What we see on a food label today is the result of many years of laws and regulations, including the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, and the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2006. All of these laws have led to a complicated and sometimes confusing set of standardized labeling requirements. Fortunately, breaking down the requirements into a basic set of guidelines makes it easier to design food product labels that are compliant with all the relevant regulations while still being eye-catching.
There are five pieces of information that are required on all food labels with few exceptions: a statement of identity; a net weight or contents statement; the Nutrition Facts panel; an ingredients statement; and a statement that gives the name and place of business of the product’s manufacturer, packer, or distributor. Label designers should note there are general requirements for how this information must be presented in terms of type style and size, as well as label location.
The statement of identity is preferably the common name of the food, although a unique name may be used if no common name exists as long as the name is descriptive enough to allow the average consumer to understand what the product is.
The net weight or contents statement describes the amount of edible product in the container by weight, volume, or numerical count as appropriate. Weights and volumes must be listed in both English and metric units.
The Nutrition Facts panel is familiar to most consumers. Label designers need to know the formatting requirements for the Nutrition Facts panel are rigorous in terms of layout, type style and size, and so on. It’s not enough to have the correct information; it must be properly formatted as well. Also of note, on May 20, 2016, the FDA announced a redesign of the panel to incorporate changes in formatting and in some of the nutrient content information required. Food manufacturers with $10 million or more in annual sales will need to use the new label design by July 26, 2018; smaller manufacturers will have an additional year to comply.
The ingredients statement must follow the Nutrition Facts Panel and must list all of the ingredients in the product in descending order of predominance by weight. The regulations lay down specific requirements for how various ingredients need to be identified. This is another area of label design that often trips up food manufacturers.
The name and place of business of the food product’s manufacturer, packer, or distributor statement must follow the ingredients statement and may consist of a business name, city, and zip code if the business’ street address may be found in a public directory under the business name. Otherwise, the complete address must be found on the label.