Your dinner

Whether you are eating out in a posh restaurant or are at home with a TV dinner on your knee, give thanks to the law as you raise the fork to your lips.


Were it not for lawyers ensuring that our foods are produced, sold or served, not to mention labelled, packaged and promoted, in the right way, then goodness knows what we would be eating.Worse still, we might all go hungry. In the name of haute cuisine, Jennifer Currie gets a taste for food law.

Do you want chips with your chips?
Chips could become an expensive commodity if an international charity succeeds in its bid to patent the great UK institution. ActionAid hopes to expose the absurdities of the current system by patenting the humble salted chip.
Under new patent rules, companies can claim exclusive rights over basic foods simply by modifying the product in a new way. Together with a food scientist, ActionAid ‘invented’ a new variety of salted chip and has applied for a patent.
If successful, the charity will also have legal rights over any other salted chips in the land, which could mean that chippie owners will have to pay a fee every time they want to add salt to the chips they sell.
ActionAid chief executive Salil Shetty says major modified crops such as rice, maize and wheat have all been patented, a move which could mean that 1.4 billion Third World farmers will have to pay for the right to use seeds they have grown for years.
“Our chip patent shows how absurd these patent rules are and highlights the ease with which big businesses use them to deprive people of their rights,” says Shetty. “It is an outrage.”
Taking on Ronald McDonald
When fast food giant McDonald’s embarked on a libel action against a pair of environmental campaigners in June 1994, its leading counsel predicted that the case would last a month. Three years later, in June 1997, the longest case in English legal history finally ground to a halt.
McDonald’s decided to sue Helen Steel and Dave Morris after they published a leaflet entitled ‘What’s Wrong With McDonald’s – Everything They Don’t Want You to Know’, which accused the chain of exploiting children, animals, workers and
the environment, while promoting unhealthy food to billions of people.
During its 313 days in court, the case involved 28 separate hearings, 130 witnesses, 40,000 pages of documents and 20,000 pages of transcript.
Even though McDonald’s won the case overall, the judge awarded the company only 60,000 in damages and the chain was also landed with a 10m legal services bill. Meanwhile, Steele and Morris’s legal bill was a meagre 35,000.
McDonald’s courted controversy again in May 2001 when it was forced to admit that its fries contained beef flavouring. This came as a great surprise to Hindus, who had been assured the fries were meat-free in 1990. The court ordered McDonald’s to donate $10m (6.35m) to charity.
Another suit was launched against McDonald’s just last month by a customer who claims an “improperly prepared bagel” damaged his teeth and has had an impact on his marriage.
Frankenstein’s dinner
Products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have had a rough ride since the first one appeared on a supermarket shelf in 1996. Sainsbury’s tomato pur裬 containing GM tomatoes, was initially hailed as a success, yet public opinion changed dramatically following the BSE crisis, and GM products were swiftly dubbed ‘Frankenfoods’ by the media.
According to Natalie Kingston, a solicitor in Berwin Leighton Paisner‘s food law group, efforts are underway to refine the process by which GM foods can safely emerge onto the market.
“Not a lot are approved at the moment,” admits Kingston. “There’s been a de facto moratorium since 1998, which the EU brought in because of the public’s reaction to products containing GMOs.”
Under new proposals, the EU plans to set up a system to track GM foods from the animal or crop stage right through to the final product. Current labelling requirements are also to be reinforced.
“The [proposals] haven’t been well received,” says Kingston. “There are concerns that they won’t really be that easy to enforce.”
If the new labelling proposal is accepted, it could mean that all foods or animal feed containing GMOs will have to be labelled, although dairy products will not be included. “The problem is, where do you draw the line?” asks Kingston.
Working in such a fast-developing area of the law is “fantastic”, she adds, because “it’s always changing and challenging. I’m looking forward to seeing how public opinion changes too.”
Red tape for tea
Restaurant menus may have to carry nutritional details, ingredient listings and even calorific contents under new proposals being considered by the European Commission (EC).
According to Barry Holland, chair of the food law group and a solicitor at Elliotts in Manchester, the idea behind the consultation is so that consumers can be aware of what they are eating when they go out for dinner.
Holland is worried that many small food producers may be forced out of business by over-regulation in this area.
“There are new egg labelling regulations, which mean that every egg has to be individually marked with the date of lay,” says Holland. “But the machinery is so expensive that if you’re a small farmer you pro-bably won’t be able to afford it. That could mean that many organic farmers who produce good produce will be forced out of the market.”
Holland says the explosion of interest in food law dates back to 1990, when the Food Safety Act was published. “This was the first time there was a coordinating piece of legislation in the area,” he adds. “Now I think we’re going to have more and more EU legislation, covering us vertically and horizontally.”
One of the pitfalls of being a lawyer in this area is that trips to the supermarket are that bit more hazardous, and Holland admits he keeps an eye out for out-of-date products, because it is an offence to offer them for sale. In general terms, though, he says that food law is an area for young lawyers to watch out for.
“Of course, we all have to eat, so it’s a matter that affects us all,” he says. “But I don’t think the burden of legislation is going to get any less and it’s an area where we’ll need many more lawyers.”
Too drunk to read?
Washing your meal down with a bottled beer can be a lot more fun when you know what the label means, according to Sahar Bhaimia, an assistant in Simmons & Simmons’ commercial group.
Under the Food Labelling Regulations 1996, the label of a bottled beer must contain the word ‘beer’, a best before date, conditions of use, the manufacturer’s name and address or the seller in the European Community. A place of origin should also be listed if customers could get confused, instructions for use (if necessary), and if the alcohol by volume (ABV) percentage is more than 1.2, some ingredients must also be listed.
“The consumer must be able to see certain indications on the label in the same field of vision,” says Bhaimia. “This means that a purchaser of a bottle or can must be able to see the required information without having to turn it.”
Phrases such as ‘low calorie’ can only be used in some conditions, while it is only legal to use a picture or name of another food, for example an image of a strawberry or the name strawberry beer, if the product’s flavour comes mainly or wholly from strawberries.
Now the UK’s Food Standards Agency wants the EU to tighten up some of its labelling regulations, particularly in relation to the product’s place of origin.
“Consumer research shows that country of origin indications are high on their list of priorities for change,” says Bhaimia. “Adverts for alcoholic drinks tend to emphasise some sort of national link to their product, so it’s essential not to mislead the consumer on the actual origin of the drink. It will be interesting to see what the response from Europe will be.”