How Does Food Mislabelling Happen?

A key ingredient in food safety is proper, comprehensive labelling. Learn how food is commonly mislabelled, and ways to prevent it.
January 13, 2022

All types of food businesses, including producers, manufacturers, distributors and more, need to take care to ensure food is always properly labelled. All prepackaged foods in Australia must comply with the labelling requirements of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code — which means that labels must carry essential information about the nature and contents of the food.

What is food mislabelling?

Food mislabelling is when a product’s label doesn’t accurately reflect its ingredients. When mislabelling happens, it’s potentially dangerous to those consuming the food — not to mention the damage it does to the business’s profits and reputation!

What leads to mislabelled food items?

A number of issues can result in food being mislabelled:

Changing the original recipe.
If an ingredient is removed or added, or the original product formulation is altered, the previous label no longer has any relevance. Labels include data such as serving sizes, nutritional facts, ratios and proportions, all of which will vary substantially if anything in the original recipe changes. Labels must accurately reflect these changes in order to meet safety standards as well as consumers’ expectations of taste.

Replacing or substituting an ingredient.
Businesses could substitute an expensive ingredient for a cheaper one, for example. Or they may replace a hard-to-get ingredient with one that’s more easily accessible. This can change the quality of the overall product, or simply render the label incorrect.

Improper cleaning or safety processes.
When a facility’s Food Safety Program is not fully or adequately understood by employees, or general safety processes are not strictly followed, chemical, biological or physical contaminants can inadvertently get into the food item, causing a food-borne illness outbreak. Cross-contamination can also occur without proper cleaning and sanitising procedures in place. This could easily lead to food recalls, which hurt the business’s finances and reputation.

Insufficient knowledge about regulations.
Small businesses often fall into the trap of not being fully aware of regulations around labelling. This can be avoided by having regular label reviews. Certain information must be present on labels, and all labels must be accurate. Follow FSANZ labelling standards to ensure you are meeting all labelling requirements.

Purposeful mislabelling.
Purposely mislabelling food items is a serious problem in the food industry. Producers might dilute olive oil with cheaper oils, for example, or add corn syrup to honey or fruit juices to save money, and not disclose this on labels. Purposely mislabelling foods is unethical and can also be very dangerous for consumers. A business caught mislabelling food intentionally will face legal action and fines, and damage their own reputation.

Accurate labelling protects people living with food allergies

Because of the many dangers that come from inadequate or improper food labelling, everyone involved in food production needs to make an effort to ensure labels are completely accurate, 100 percent of the time.

For instance, many people have gluten allergies and sensitivities. People with Coeliac disease or other less severe gluten insensitivities need to know what products contain gluten so they can be avoided. Gluten is a commonly mislabelled ingredient, and in people with these sensitivities, even a small amount of the protein can cause an immune reaction.

For those who suffer from allergies, an improperly labelled food item can lead to a very dangerous situation. An end consumer could have a severe — even fatal — allergic reaction. The most common food allergens in Australia are:

  • wheat
  • peanuts
  • tree nuts
  • shellfish
  • eggs
  • milk
  • fish
  • soy
  • sesame seeds
  • lupin

Allergic reactions have a wide range of symptoms. From hives, itchiness and swelling in mild cases, to diarrhoea and abdominal cramping, to difficulty breathing and loss of consciousness — all of this can be avoided through correct and careful labelling.

It takes only a tiny amount of an allergen to cause a severe reaction in someone with allergies. In Australia, these allergens must be properly declared on labels, including any food allergens that may have come into contact with your products or any that may have been in the production facility.

Learn more about how to implement proper allergen management safety procedures in your food business with the AIFS Guide to Allergen Management for Food Businesses.