Open/Close Burger Menu

Unmasking dishonest food labelling

The consequences of mislabelled products and the fight for consumer safety
7 mins


June 2024

Dishonest labelling of food and drink products is a significant issue that strikes fear into the hearts of both companies and consumers alike. For food companies, the fear of misrepresentation looms large, as exemplified by Pret a Manger’s involvement in a tragic incident that led to the creation of Natasha’s Law.

The stakes are really high for consumers, who must navigate the potential dangers of mislabelled products that could be life-threatening, especially for those with severe allergies. The trust between consumers and the food industry hinges on the accuracy and honesty of product labelling, making any breach in this trust a serious and frightening matter for all parties involved.

In this blog, Rebecca Cusworth, our Head of Legal highlights the issues and consequences of dishonest labelling, how you can address these challenges, and the key regulations you need to be aware of.

Key issues

Dishonest food labelling is a pervasive issue that undermines consumer trust and poses significant risks to public health. Key issues in food labelling encompass various forms of deception that can have far-reaching consequences. Understanding these issues is essential for food and drink companies to ensure compliance and maintain consumer confidence.

Non-Compliance with Standards

Products might be labelled as ‘Organic’ or ‘Free from’ without meeting the regulatory standards for these designations. This misrepresentation can deceive consumers seeking healthier or allergen-free options. Companies must adhere to stringent guidelines to genuinely label their products as such, ensuring they meet all necessary criteria.

Misleading Health Claims

Health claims on food labels can be misleading, such as labelling high-sugar snacks as ‘healthy’ or ‘natural.’ These claims can mislead consumers into believing they are making healthier choices, potentially exacerbating health issues like obesity and diabetes. Accurate and truthful labelling is crucial to avoid misleading consumers about the health benefits of products.

  False Origin Claims

Some products may be labelled as originating from a particular country or region to attract consumers who prefer local or specific regional foods, even though they are sourced elsewhere. This practice can erode consumer trust and damage the reputation of genuinely local producers. Transparent and accurate origin labelling is vital to maintain integrity in the food industry.

  Ingredient Substitution 

Using cheaper ingredients than those listed on the label, such as substituting olive oil with lower-cost vegetable oil or using synthetic colours and flavours instead of natural ones, is a common form of fraud. This not only deceives consumers but can also pose health risks if allergens are not correctly identified. Ensuring ingredient authenticity is essential for consumer safety and trust.

 Nutritional Misrepresentation

Incorrect nutritional information, such as under-reporting sugar or fat content, can mislead consumers trying to manage their diet. Accurate nutritional labelling is critical for consumers to make informed dietary choices, particularly for those with specific health conditions that require careful monitoring of nutrient intake.


The Horsemeat Scandal in 2013 is a prime example of the severe consequences of dishonest labelling. The discovery of horsemeat in beef products sold across Europe led to a massive recall and significant financial losses.

Similarly, the Spanish olive oil fraud in 2016 involved the mislabelling of lower-grade oil as extra virgin olive oil. Investigations revealed that some products contained up to 80% lower-grade oil, along with additives and artificial colours.


Dishonest food labelling carries severe repercussions that extend beyond immediate consumer deception. Understanding these consequences is essential for food and drink companies to appreciate the gravity of maintaining honest and accurate labelling practices.

Here are some of the primary consequences of dishonest food labelling:

  • Loss of Consumer Trust – Once consumers become aware of dishonest practices, they may lose trust in the brand and in the food industry overall.
  • Consumer Health Risks – Mislabelling can lead to allergic reactions or other health issues if allergens or harmful ingredients are not correctly disclosed.
  • Economic Impact – Honest businesses may suffer if they cannot compete with falsely labelled cheaper alternatives. Consumers may also overpay for products not meeting the advertised quality.

We must address the issue of dishonest food labelling through a collective approach that involves industry accountability, regulatory enforcement, and consumer education. By focusing on these key drivers, companies can work towards restoring trust and ensuring the safety and integrity of their products.

Industry Accountability

The food industry must ensure that transparent practices are adopted and self-regulated to maintain consumer trust and market integrity. This involves companies committing to honest labelling, conducting regular audits, and fostering a culture of accountability. By taking proactive measures, the industry can help prevent fraud and build a trustworthy relationship with consumers.

Regulatory Enforcement

Governments and regulatory bodies need to enforce stricter labelling laws and ensure compliance through regular inspections and penalties for violations. Robust regulatory frameworks and vigilant enforcement can deter fraudulent practices and ensure that products on the market meet the required standards. This will not only protect consumers but also create a level playing field for honest businesses.

Consumer Education

Educating consumers on how to read labels and understand what different certifications mean can help them make informed choices. By raising awareness about the significance of labels and how to identify trustworthy information, consumers can become more discerning and less susceptible to deception. This, in turn, puts pressure on the industry to maintain high standards of honesty and transparency.

Key regulations to ensure honest food labelling

Various laws and regulations are in place to ensure that food is correctly described, advertised, and presented to protect consumers from misleading information. Key regulations include:

  • Food Safety Order – This typically refers to regulations that ensure food is safe for consumption. Such orders often encompass hygiene standards, handling, and preparation processes to prevent contamination and ensure public health.
  • Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations – These regulations aim to protect consumers from unfair, misleading, or aggressive marketing practices. They cover false advertising, deceptive descriptions, and any other practices that could mislead consumers about the nature, characteristics, or benefits of a product.
  • General Food Regulations – These regulations set out general principles and requirements for food law. They often cover aspects such as food safety, traceability, labelling, and the responsibilities of food businesses to ensure that food placed on the market is safe.
  • Food Information Regulations – These regulations govern the labelling, presentation, and advertising of food products. They ensure that consumers have access to clear, accurate, and comprehensive information about the food they purchase. This includes ingredients, nutritional information, allergens, and any claims made about the product. These laws collectively ensure that food products are safe and that consumers can make informed choices based on truthful and clear information. Misleading descriptions or advertising of food products can lead to serious legal consequences for businesses, including costly fines, product recalls, and damage to reputation.

By promoting transparency and honesty, consumers and businesses can help create a market where quality and integrity are prioritised, leading to safer and more trustworthy food products for everyone.

Get in touch
Find out how our Legal team can help you protect your customers and your brand