General food labelling is mandatory and must comply with the European regulation on food information to consumers. This Regulation, which aims to ensure a high level of protection of consumer health and interests, determines the information that must appear on packaging. The list of mandatory information includes:
- the identity of the commodity (trade name, list of ingredients, country of origin, etc.);
- how it should be used (use-by date, preparation instructions, etc.);
- its nutritional characteristics.
Some of this information helps prevent food poisoning, warns of allergic reactions for sensitive consumers, or gives guidance on a balanced diet. Below are some instructions on reading and understanding labels.
Read and understand the list of ingredients
This list, which itemises the components used in the food’s manufacture that are still present in the finished product (agricultural raw materials, spices, additives, etc.), is an important source of information for people who need to monitor their diet or who have allergies or intolerances to certain products. The Regulation specifies the substances and products causing allergies or intolerances that must be highlighted in the list of ingredients, for example using specific colours for the printing characters.
A fact worth knowing: ingredients are listed in descending order of the amount contained in the food.
Pay attention to date limits
The label may show two types of date:
- the "Best before" date (BBD), preceded by the phrase "best before the ... / before the end of...," specifies the deadline beyond which the food’s organoleptic (taste, smell, etc.) and nutritional qualities (decreased vitamin content, lipid oxidation, etc.) may be altered without adversely affecting the consumer’s health;
- the "Use-by" date (UBD), preceded by the phrase "use by ..." indicates the date beyond which consumption of the food may present a health hazard.
Note: the different types of date limits can also serve as batch numbers, provided they include a mention of the day and month.
Do not disregard information on the manufacturing batch and manager contact details
According to the European regulation, no pre-packaged food may be sold unless it is accompanied by a statement identifying the batch from which it came. This information, together with the name and address of the operator responsible for the food, ensures its identification and traceability. This information is necessary in the event of a fault, claim or health warning relating to a product.
Be aware of the veterinary stamp or health mark
This is evidence of the control by the veterinary services of the French Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. It is only mandatory on products of animal origin (meat, delicatessen meats, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, etc.).
Pay attention to special references
Specific references are also required for certain types of food, for example:
- “contains phenylalanine” on foods containing aspartame is essential information to consumers suffering from phenylketonuria;
- “high in caffeine, not recommended for children and pregnant women” for beverages containing more than 150 mg of caffeine per litre.