This move underscores China’s continued efforts to enhance food safety and consumer protection, addressing inconsistencies in the interpretation of the National Food Safety Standards - General Standards for the Labeling of Prepackaged Foods (GB 7718-2011) since its enactment in 2011. The revision aims to align with the PRC Food Safety Law enacted in 2021, ensuring comprehensive safeguarding of food safety and consumer rights. The task of revising these standards was collaboratively undertaken by the National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment, the China Food Industry Association, and the Shenzhen Institute of Standards and Technology Research, with reviews by the State Administration for Market Regulation in 2020 and 2022.
In the process of revising these standards, reference was made to the General Standard for the Labelling of Prepackaged Foods (Codex Stan 1-1985) issued by the Codex Alimentarius Commission and its most recent amendments, as well as the EU Food Information Regulation (Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011), the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act issued by the United States, and the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act of Canada.
Key updates in the Draft Standards include stipulations for food name labeling, ingredients list, producer and operator information, date labeling, allergen labeling, food claims, and digital labels. And the Draft Standards place an emphasis on the labeling of imported prepackaged foods, addressing the unique challenges and regulatory needs of the Customs. The notable revisions are summarized as following:
To ensure that the attribute names accurately reflect the true attributes of the food and avoid misleading consumers, the Draft Standards require that the attribute names of the food be marked using the same font, font size, and color. The Draft Standards also regulates the use of attribute names in the following aspects:
i) When a food’s name or names have already been specified or adopted in national standards, industry standards, local standards, regulations issued by relevant departments of the State Council, or announcements related to food naming, one of these names or a name essentially identical to these names should be used as the attribute name. Otherwise, a name that fully explains the true attributes of the food and is not likely to cause consumer misunderstanding or confusion should be used as the attribute name.ii) On the same display surface of the food attribute name, it is possible to simultaneously indicate the food’s “innovative name”, “unique name”, “transliterated name”, “regional slang name”, or “trademark name”. When the above names contain text or words that may mislead or confuse the attributes of the food, it should be marked in a position adjacent to the same display surface of the attribute name, using a font size no larger than that of the attribute name and the same font and color as the attribute name.
Ingredients List/Quantitative Ingredients Declaration
The Draft Standards require that ingredients should be labeled with their attribute names, using “Ingredients” or “Ingredients List” as lead words, which may be replaced by “Raw Materials” or “Raw Materials and Additives” with the clear basis for the descending order of ingredients being the order of their addition “by weight” during food processing, in special cases. Composite ingredients must be separately identified and not unfolded or merged with the original ingredients in labeling. Ingredients that have volatilized or been removed during processing may be omitted from the ingredients list.
The Draft Standards also stipulate that when ingredients are added or present, their quantities must be labeled, and specify the method for quantitative labeling. When using terms such as “none” or “does not contain”, the corresponding ingredient or component content should be “0”, unless otherwise specified. Food additives, contaminants, and substances that are not allowed to be added to food or should not be present in food, as specified by laws, regulations, and standards, cannot be claimed using terms such as “none”, “does not contain” or their synonyms.
Additionally, the Draft Standards introduce labeling requirements for microbial strains in the ingredients list - Microbial strains directly added during the production process, which have not been inactivated or removed, should be labeled with their specific names. The corresponding strain numbers and microbial content may also be indicated.
Producer and Operator Information Labeling
In conjunction with the application of digital labels, the Draft Standards mention that the labeling of producer and operator information is not constrained by layout restrictions. The Draft Standards also adopt suggestions from SAMR, stipulating that only the producer’s name, address, and contact information should be marked, to avoid misleading consumers with irrelevant information such as “supervised by” that is unrelated to food production and operation.
According to the Draft Standards, the production date of prepackaged food should be clearly marked in the order of year, month, and day. Prepackaged foods with a shelf life of 1 year or more may not need to mark the production date. The shelf life can be indicated based on the characteristics and processing of the food, serving as the last consumption date under specified storage conditions. This guides consumers to consume the food reasonably after purchase, aiming to prevent food waste.
The Draft Standards change the labeling of directly added allergens from a recommended to a mandatory requirement, while allergens that may be introduced on the production line can be recommended for labeling. Substances listed in the catalog exempt from allergen labeling warnings are not required to be labeled as allergens.
The Draft Standards incorporate the basic requirements for food claims into the standards, stating that food claims should truthfully and accurately describe the characteristics, properties, and features of the food, its ingredients, or components. Food claims are divided into the following four categories:
i) General claims, mainly including characteristic claims, conditional claims, comparative claims, quantitative (content) claims, and sensory claims - the principles for labeling general claims are listed in Appendix E of the draft;ii) Nutritional claims and claims on the function of nutritional components - these should be implemented in accordance with GB 28050 [https://www.fsis.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media_file/2021-03/gb-28050-2011.pdf] and GB 13432 [http://www.nhc.gov.cn/ewebeditor/uploadfile/2014/05/20140505140531583.pdf];iii) Health effect claims of food ingredients or components - in the absence of relevant regulations, food production enterprises should not make health effect claims on their own. For ingredients or components that are “traditionally both food and Chinese medicinal materials” and those “with effects of reducing the risk of disease”, health effect claims should comply with the regulations of the relevant departments of the State Council;iv) Health food claims - these should comply with the regulations of the relevant departments of the State Council.
Imported Prepackaged Food Labeling
It is particularly noteworthy that, due to the management needs of the PRC Customs, the Draft Standards have added provisions for the labeling content of imported prepackaged foods to facilitate the implementation of the standards’ various requirements for imported foods.
i) For the Chinese labels of imported prepackaged foods, the mandatory labeling content in Chinese and foreign languages must correspond one-to-one. The content expressed in other foreign languages or traditional characters visible on the label should correspond to the standardized Chinese characters (excluding trademarks, producers and addresses of imported foods, names and addresses of foreign operators, and URLs);ii) The contents of the foreign language ingredients list for imported prepackaged foods must correspond to the contents in the Chinese ingredients list. Ingredients in the food that are not marked in the foreign language ingredients list but should be marked according to the laws, regulations, and standards of our country must also be marked in the Chinese ingredients list;iii) Imported prepackaged foods should label the name, address, and contact information of the importer/agent;iv) Imported prepackaged foods should label the registration number of the overseas production enterprise either registered in China or approved by the competent authority of the country or region where it is located;v) Imported prepackaged foods should label the country (region) of origin, and may also indicate the source or production country or region name of its raw materials or ingredients;vi) If the original packaging of imported prepackaged foods does not label the production date, it should be marked based on the shelf life, best before date, and other relevant information indicated on the original packaging, after calculation. For those with a shelf life of not less than 1 year, the production date may not be marked;vii) Information related to suitable consumer groups, consumption amounts, or methods of consumption in the original label of imported prepackaged foods should have corresponding Chinese content and must comply with the requirements of the national food safety standards of our country and announcements issued by the relevant departments of the State Council;viii) Imported prepackaged foods may not label the food production license number or product standard code.
The Draft Standards introduce the concept of digital labels for the first time, stipulating that food production enterprises may independently choose whether to use digital labels as the medium for labeling. When using digital labels, they must comply with the relevant standards and ensure that the related label information is directly displayed on the first page after scanning to obtain information, while also avoiding pop-up advertisements and other distractions that could interfere with consumers reading food label information.
The Draft Standards also stipulate that the name of the producer and operator (excluding the name of the producer legally registered and capable of bearing product safety and quality responsibilities), address, food standard execution number, food production license number, and the recommended labeling content specified in the food safety standards, provided through digital labels, can be exempt from being marked on the food label.
The introduction of the third draft of the Food Labeling Standards by the NHC represents a significant regulatory evolution, particularly in terms of the transparency and clarity it brings to the labeling of imported prepackaged foods. For import food businesses, these changes necessitate a thorough review of current labeling practices to ensure compliance with the new standards. Further, the detailed requirements surrounding the labeling of the country of origin, importer details, and the emphasis on the accuracy of allergen and ingredients information underscore the need for food importers to have robust verification processes in place.