Although typically less than 3% of a finished product’s volume, flavors play a significant role in delivering complete and accurate on-package communication. Getting flavor labeling right is essential for food and beverage manufacturers to meet FDA guidelines for safety and fulfill consumer needs for transparency. Regulatory teams know they must address flavor labeling complexities to reduce the risk of FDA enforcement or consumer litigation if labeling is incorrect.
Some of the flavor labeling challenges that food and beverage manufacturers and foodservice providers faced in 2020 have extended into 2021. And, as consumer demand for safe food expands, new food and flavor labeling regulations are on the horizon. Fortunately, insights about upcoming changes can make it easier to navigate the labeling landscape.
Temporary Labeling Changes Due to COVID-19
Pandemic-driven supply chain disruptions led FDA to provide interim guidance for relief to manufacturers at the end of May 2020. This allowance of temporary flexibility will cease with the discontinuation of COVID-19’s status as a national emergency. While the vaccine for COVID-19 has already started to roll out, supply chain obstacles may affect the immunization timetable needed for manufacturers to return to pre-pandemic operations.
Under the interim guidance, food manufacturers can use their existing labels when applying minor changes to their formulas, which would otherwise cause mandatory label changes. FDA provided the following details about appropriate changes to formulas that fall under the guidance scope. Use of existing labels is possible when the ingredient is minor and is present at less than 2% of the formula, the ingredient is not a significant ingredient (characterizing) or a source for a label claim, or the ingredient does not affect the finished product in function or nutrition.
The temporary changes apply to flavors if manufacturers want to replace them with appropriate substitutes meeting the same common name. For example, manufacturers must replace a natural flavor with a natural substitute and must replace an artificial flavor with an artificial alternative.
FDA gave additional clarification about flavor changes that fall outside the guidance and would require applicable label changes, including situations when the change affects a characterizing flavor, such as chocolate, and when it’s a primary, recognizable flavor in the food or beverage, such as chocolate milk; the source of an identity claim for a finished product for flavors with widely known taste profiles such as strawberry, banana, or watermelon; and when it is associated with a standard of identity which, in the world of flavors, only includes vanilla flavorings.
FDA also reminded manufacturers about the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), which states that any ingredient change affecting allergen or sensitive ingredient presence in a product requires a modification to a manufacturer’s label.
Organic Certified Flavors
A 2018 ruling from the National Organic Program (NOP) went into effect at the end of 2019, requiring manufacturers to use certified organic flavors whenever commercially available. The ruling is a response to a 2014 petition from the Organic Trade Association (OTA) that pointed to the growing availability of certified organic flavors due to use of technologies by flavor providers that increase production efficiency of organic options, more monitoring by USDA that helps flavor manufacturers find and source ingredients from certified organic producers, and detailed guidance about the documentation flavor houses must obtain to verify flavor ingredient authenticity.
Flavors that make organic claims must meet the same standard as the end-product. The flavor must contain 95% or more organic ingredients and 5% or less non-organic ingredients.
The material list in the organic standard provides manufacturers with guidelines for flavor ingredients and identifies substances that don’t comply. An ingredient such as an amino acid, for example, would meet requirements for a natural flavor, but it doesn’t fit within the rules for certified organic flavors.