The issue of mislabeling came under a huge amount of media scrutiny in 2013 with the horse meat scandal, where UK supermarket chains including Tesco, Iceland, Aldi and Lidl were caught selling frozen beef burgers containing horse meat. This pushed up the number of food related recalls in 2013, with 58 per cent of all recall notifications being related to food products. This highlights how intrinsically linked mislabelling and recalls can be.

Increasingly, there are a number of recalls being initiated due to “mislabeling.” This catchall phrase encompasses products that contain undeclared allergens (ingredients missing from the label) as well as extraneous materials (items that shouldn’t be in the product.)

While recalls due to mislabelling touch all industries, the news media frequently reports on food recalls that occur as a result of increasingly globalised supply chains. The spotlight of the horse meat scandal is prompting changes in the way that the industry sources products and handles notifications. The media outcry following the mislabeling of a range of products has meant that supermarkets are being more cautious and customer-aware than ever before.

With European food labelling rules, companies have a legal obligation to ensure that all consumers are given a comprehensive ingredients list on pre-packaged food. Based on those directives the rules for pre-packaged foods established a list of 14 food allergens that need to be indicated on the label. Those include milk, egg, fish, crustacean shellfish, nuts, wheat, peanuts, soybeans, gluten, celery, mustard, sesam, lupin and sulphur dioxide.

It is so important that manufacturers are vigilant about accurately listing the ingredients in their products – and is demanded so by law. Unlisted allergies can even pose the risk of fatalities and in this day and age of social media, stories of mislabelled goods (and the associated manufacturers) will spread far and wide. This is of particular importance as the globalisation of the supply chain continues. Global expansion generally goes hand-in-hand with an increase in the risk for unintentional ingredients.

However, food-labelling rules will change in December 2014, following the implementation of the Food Information to Consumers Regulation (FIR) . These will introduce new allergen labelling regulations for non-packed food and unpackaged food sold directly to consumer. The strict rules will require changes to food labels covering: font sizes, mandatory information on ingredients, nutrition, allergens and the country of origin, amongst others.

In the UK, the Food Standards Agency is responsible for ensuring that food safety and hygiene guidelines are complied with. The government department works with businesses and local authorities to enforce food safety regulations. In addition to this, businesses are legally required to inform the FSA if they believe food does not meet food standards requirements. This includes food quality and labelling.

Normally, local authorities and their trading standards departments are responsible for food testing. However, the recall numbers signal that there is more work to be done to address mislabelling concerns within the food industry.

Despite the risks to both the consumer and to brand reputation, mislabeling continues to be a significant issue for manufacturers and consumers alike.  Companies cannot rely solely on government agencies to identify mislabelled products. In order to ensure consumer safety and protect against reputation damage, manufacturers really need to do their own testing for critical contaminants.