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Packaging – ingredients

Every era has its own laws and ways of checking that food is of good quality and does not pose any health risks. From the 1940s onwards, the wartime economy and concern over diet greatly influenced how ingredients were indicated on products. Nowadays, the Codex Alimentarius sets international guidelines for the list of ingredients on packaging.
© Alimentarium - Tin of Maggi cubes, 1909-2000

Wartime economy and food safety

As with the issue of the source of the food on our plates, the commitment to transparency regarding the composition of a product falls within the ambit of food safety and security, and respect for the consumer. The regulations in place are designed to avoid misleading consumers and to maintain their confidence in the products they eat. Monitoring the quantity of ingredients has always gone hand in hand with monitoring their quality (Bruegel, 2004). Such regulations already existed in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. In 1266 in England, for example, The Assize of Bread governed the weight of a loaf of bread and specifically prohibited the use of pea or bean flour, thought to be of inferior quality. Using these types of flour was considered as food fraud and punishable by law.

Since the 1940s, food supply during the Second World War and the rise of dietetics have greatly influenced national policies on the listing of ingredients on labels. Against a backdrop of wartime economy and rationing, several countries set up government departments to monitor food labelling. In the United Kingdom, for example, 1943 saw the creation of the Food Standards and Labelling Department at the Ministry of Food and then, in 1948, the Food Standards Committee was founded at the same time as the World Health Organization (WHO). Meanwhile, in 1945, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) came into being. The review of food product labelling, which all of these bodies contributed to, went hand in hand with the transition to a peacetime economy and a broader variety of available products.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission was founded in 1961 by the FAO and the WHO and launched the food standards programme internationally to raise awareness of this issue among Member States, some of which brought out their own national regulations.

Lists of ingredients: international standards

Nowadays, lists of ingredients comply with the general standards set by the Codex Alimentarius. These lists act as a ‘declaration of transparency and honesty’ from the producer. They must be comprehensive. They are preceded with a heading which includes the word ‘ingredient’. The ingredients, including additives, are listed in descending order of weight when the product is made. Compound ingredients have their own ingredients listed in brackets. Allergens and added water are also clearly indicated. A product is not marketed if precise details about the presence of an allergen cannot be provided. Certain groups of ingredients, such as oils, starches, fish, cheese, herbs and spices, can be indicated by category according to the full Codex list.

The Chocolate ‘War’

On 23 June 2000, Directive 2000/36/EC of the European Parliament and Council ended a 27-year-long chocolate ‘war’ within the European Union. Some Member States did not agree on the composition of chocolate. One side thought cocoa butter and other vegetable fats could be allowed in chocolate, whereas the other side did not. Prior to the stringent regulations set by this European Directive, each country applied its own legislation in this area.