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Food standards – labelling and composition

As a result of these areas of work moving from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to Defra, guidance notes for legislation are currently in the process of revision. They will be published on this website once completed.  In the meantime the National Archive holds a page containing the guidance as published by the FSA for your information.

Food standards legislation set out specific requirements for the labelling, composition and, in some cases, safety parameters for specific high value foodstuffs which are potentially at risk of being misleadingly substituted with lower quality alternatives.

The legislation makes sure consumers are not mislead as to the nature of food products when it is sold to them.  It also makes the playing field level for food producers, so they have established standards they can work to when producing well known or traditional foodstuffs.

Most legislation on food standards is developed in Europe, with full involvement from UK Government officials.  Secondary legislation is then used to either implement the requirements or put in place enforcement powers, depending on the nature of the European legislation. There are compositional standards in legislation for a wide variety of products.  These products include bottled water, dairy, fats and oils, bread, jams and chocolate.

There are also international standards such as those produced by Codex which whilst they are not legally binding are generally considered good practice.  They ensure fairness in international trade and make sure consumer interests are protected.

Defra is responsible for standards legislation in England that is principally non-safety, and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) on standards that are principally safety based.

For Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all domestic standards legislation is the responsibility of the FSA.  The FSA has an area their website devoted to their labelling work.

Rules covering specific compositional & labelling requirements

Bottled waters

Bottled waters are split into three categories: natural mineral water, spring water and bottled drinking water.  Each has their own rules and requirements on exploitation, sale and how they are labelled.

Natural mineral waters must come from a recognised underground source and can only be subject to very limited treatments.  Any water labelled “spring water” must come from an underground source and meet certain exploitation and labelling requirements but does not need to be from an officially recognised source.  Bottled drinking can come from any water source and has fewer labelling restrictions than the other two categories.

Milk products

For milk products there are legal standards that set out compositional and labelling requirements and also protect the use of dairy terms when marketing foods.  Specific legal standards exist on the composition and labelling of ice cream, cream, casein and caseinates, certain UK cheeses and condensed/dried milk.  The use of terms such as milk, cheese, cream, yogurt, etc is also protected so they may only be used for the associated dairy products and not misused to describe non-dairy produce.

Meat products

For a range of meat products there is legislation setting out specific compositional and labelling requirements. The rules set out minimum meat content requirements for certain meat products sold using  reserved descriptions such as sausages, burgers, corned beef, meat pies, pasties, etc.  In addition, there are very specific labelling rules for certain meat products that look like a cut, joint, slice, portion or carcase of meat. Where any added water over certain limits as well as any added ingredients of different animal species to the rest of the meat must be mentioned in the name of the food.

Fat and Oils

Legal standards on composition exist for fats and oil exist for labelling them as an ingredient “vegetable oil/fat”.  In addition there are very specific rules on the labelling and composition of spreadable fats, such as butter and margarine.  These set out permitted fat ranges for each type of spreadable fat: dairy spreads made with milk fat; fat spreads made with vegetable fats; and blended spreads which contain a mix of both types of fat.  The legal names for a particular spread must appear prominently on packaging.

Bread and Flour

The Bread and Flour Regulations 1998 lay down specific labelling and compositional standards for the breads and flours to which they apply. They also continue with a long standing national requirement to restore to all flour, except wholemeal, with certain vitamins and minerals such as niacin, thiamin, iron and calcium to certain types of flour manufactured and sold in the UK. They also define terms like wholemeal and self raising.

Cocoa and Chocolate Products

Certain cocoa and chocolate products must comply with the reserved descriptions set out in the Cocoa and Chocolate Products Regulations 2003. The rules lay down the composition of chocolate and products including setting minimum ingredient requirements and specific labelling requirements.  The amount of cocoa solids and milk solids that must be present are stipulated as well as allowing only certain additional ingredients to be added.  A cocoa solids declaration such as X% minimum is required for most chocolate products covered by the rules and also where appropriate a milk solids declaration is required.  This enables consumers to make informed decisions about the type of chocolate they want to purchase. If you use one of the reserved descriptions covered in the regulation then your product must be made according to the defined compositional criteria.

Soluble Coffee

Instant coffee is controlled by rules covered in The Coffee Extracts and Chicory Extracts (England) Regulations 2000.  These define soluble coffee extracts and chicory extracts in terms of their coffee and chicory content and also provide for rules on their labelling.

Fish names

Rules are in place to make sure fish is labelled correctly and consistently at the point of sale, so purchasers know exactly what they are buying.  The rules require information on:

  • the commercial designation of the species (i.e. an agreed common name for the species of fish)
  • the production method (i.e. whether caught at sea, caught in inland waters or farmed)
  • the catch area. (i.e. either the ocean area, or in the case of freshwater fish, the country in which it was caught or farmed)

Updated rules in the form of The Fish Labelling Regulations 2010 have recently come into force which adds new commercial designations (the names of fish) for species of fish that have recently come onto the market and give extra options for some others that were already listed.

Fruit juices and nectars

Detailed rules on what constitutes fruit juice are contained in the Fruit Juice and Fruit Nectars (England) Regulations 2003. These rules define terms such a fruit juice, fruit juice from concentrate, concentrated fruit juice and fruit nectar. The Regulations also authorise specific ingredients to be added to fruit juices and allow certain treatments and substances to be used such as enzymes.  In certain cases where ingredients have been added then these must be labelled in accordance with the rules. If you use one of the reserved descriptions then your product must be made according to the defined compositional criteria.


Honey composition and labelling is controlled by the Honey (England) Regulations 2003 as amended. This legislation lays down reserved descriptions that must be used which relate to the source from which the honey is obtained (eg blossom, honeydew), or the processes by which it is extracted (eg drained, extracted) and also the way it is presented (eg comb, chunk honey). The Regulations lay down detailed specification honey must comply to in terms its composition and also set out some general quality criteria for honey. In addition the Regulations contain some specific labelling requirements including a requirement for country of origin labelling on honey where appropriate. If you use one of the reserved descriptions then your product must be made according to the defined compositional criteria.

Jams and marmalade

Jam and similar products must comply with the reserved descriptions as set out in the Jam and Similar Products (England) Regulations 2003. These include compositional requirements such as minimum fruit and sugar requirements and specific labelling requirements such as labelling the amount of fruit and sugar in a jam or marmalade. Products covered include jam, extra jam, jellies and marmalades. In addition only certain ingredients are allowed to be added.  The Regulations also provide national rules for mincemeat and fruit curds.  If you use one of the reserved descriptions then your product must be made according to the defined compositional criteria.


Regulations exist which lay down reserved descriptions for certain types of sugar products sold as such to the final consumer.  These rules set out specifications for the sugar products covered and in some cases provide for additional labelling requirements.  Products covered by the rules include white sugars, dextrose, glucose syrups and fructose.

Page last modified: 8 November 2010