Prepackaged food is facing criticism for its illegible labels.
A joint study by the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) and the Consumer Council in Hong Kong has found nearly two-thirds of nutrition labels on food packaging does not meet The Food and Drug (Composition and Labelling) Regulations.
It found manufacturers also ignored recommendations in the Trade Guidelines on Preparation of Legible Food Label (Trade Guidelines), issued by the CFS in 2012.
Professor Ron Hui, a spokesman for the Consumer Council, said of 100 samples of packaged food, 63 had labels that were hard to read due to tiny writing, poor contrast or low printing quality.
“The food industry is strongly urged to follow the Trade Guidelines and where space is available, to enhance legibility by printing larger nutrition labels,” he said.
“Nutrition labelling on prepackaged food is essential but, sadly, shoppers' expectation of legibility is not always met.”
The study focused on small-size pre-packaged food and drink products including biscuits and crispy snacks, canned luncheon meats, canned sardines, breads and cakes, yoghurts, milk, non-alcoholic and milk beverages.
According to the Consumer Council, out of 100 samples of packaged food bought in August and September last year, 51 had writing that was smaller than the size required by the guidelines – 0.8mm for English writing on standard packages and 1.2mm for larger packages.
0.48mm in height
For example, the English nutritional information on a box of Four Seas Biscuit Sticks was written in letters 0.48mm in height and the Chinese characters 0.91 mm - which is impossible to read without a magnifying glass.
Also, 63 of the labels were difficult to read because of poor contrast such as yellow words printed on a gold background.
“A legible nutrition label appropriately marked would help consumers make informed choices,” added Hui.
“But the reverse is also true: an illegible label would effectively thwart the government efforts in introducing mandatory nutrition labelling in 2010.”
The centre has now urged food manufacturers to make improvements to nutrition labels and to follow the guidelines, which are not binding.
The Trade Guidelines recommend, for English letters, a font size of at least 1.2 mm in height or at least 0.8 mm and for Chinese characters a comparable size as English or at least 1.8 mm in height.
Besides font sizes, which were measured by the CFS Food Research Laboratory, the labels were evaluated by an assessment panel on other legibility requirements including; good contrast, sufficient spacing, quality printing, and use of non-reflective surfaces.
The problem of legibility was more serious on 31 nutrition labels which were affixed on the package by stickers, notably, in font size (61%), spacing (16%), and printing (39%). The affixed labels, however, fared better in terms of contrast.
Although not covered in the Trade Guidelines, the position of a label may also affect the ease of reference. The nutrition labels of two samples were found to be poorly positioned.
The findings of the study corresponded with those of an 18-member panel of consumers invited to give their feedback on the labels.
Out of 82 samples assessed by the consumer panel, 51 samples were considered, by the majority of panel members, to be in need of improvement particularly on the font size.
In the case of 13 samples, the need for improvement was voted unanimously by the entire consumer panel. Six other samples which conformed to the Trade Guidelines were considered to be in need of improvement in font size.
The CFS was created by the Hong Kong Government in May 2006 under the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department of the Food and Health Bureau.
Its mission is to ensure food that is sold is safe and fit for consumption through collaboration with the Government, food trade and consumers.
‘Legibility of Nutrition Labels in Prepackaged Food in Hong Kong’ can be found on the Centre for Food Safety website.