May 11, 2016

Guest Post: How To Create A Legal Label For Your Food & Drink Business (Part 1)

getting my product into whole foodsYour home-made cookies are amazing. So amazing that all of your friends and family have told you that you should start selling them. So you bake a batch; get a stall at the local farmers’ market and sell out within an hour. Congratulations, you have a viable business on your hands. Now it’s time to start thinking about your brand and your labels — especially if you have aspirations to sell in retail. So what exactly does need to go on your labels?

Part One of this article focuses on the required information needed on your labels. In Part Two we’ll focus on the specifics around icons and seals that you can include in your packaging.  

For any pre-packaged food sold in the USA there are a few basic elements that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires every label to show. Some of these requirements also include detailed design guidelines available in a 132 page labeling document at . We’re just going to go over the key points to get you started.

What happens if you don’t follow the regulations?

If the FDA finds that your labels aren’t in compliance with their guidelines they’ll likely send you a letter listing the issues and warn that you must “take prompt action to correct these violations”. They’ll expect a reply within 15 days detailing how you’ll correct the issue — which could of course mean an expensive recall, redesign and relabeling of products. Failure to take action can also result in seizure of the products in question. So it’s best to get it right the first time.

Compulsory information on labels

  1. Common Name of the food
  2. Name and address of the manufacturer, packer or distributor,
  3. Ingredient list
  4. Nutrition facts
  5. Required allergy labeling.
  6. Net quantity statement in ounces and grams
  7. Ingredient specific warnings
  8. State required ‘bottle bill’ information
  1. Common Name

It may seem obvious, but it is required to include what you’re actually selling on your product label. Take Oreo’s for example — although it’s widely understood what an Oreo is, they still have to specify that it is a ‘chocolate sandwich cookie’ on the label.

  1. Name & Address

The name and address of the manufacturer, packer or distributor on the label. Essentially, you need to provide a way for a consumer to contact you. So for very small packages an email or a URL (as long as your website contains your address) is acceptable.

  1. Ingredient List

Each individual ingredient in your product must be listed in “descending order of predominance.” Ingredient lists aren’t required for single ingredient products, e.g. Honey. Juice and smoothies have their own special set of regulations too that will probably require their own article.

  1. Nutrition Facts Panel

Nutrition Facts panels are mandatory on most food products, with a couple of exceptions. Businesses with less than 10 employees, selling less than 100,000 units in a year of a product made in the USA are automatically exempt from the nutrition facts requirements. Medium sized businesses with fewer than 100 employees, selling less than 100,000 units per year, can also become exempt from the requirement after applying in writing to FDA for a waiver. Foods with “of no nutritional value”, such as spices or coffee, are also free from the requirement.

Even if you qualify for these exemptions, however, you must still include nutrition facts if you make any kind of health claim on your label, e.g. ‘healthy’ or ‘low sugar’.

The FDA regulations are very specific on the design of the nutrition facts panel — so there’s not much room for creativity here. The full version, presented in the tabular format you’ll see on most food packaging, contains information for 14 key nutrients and optional items such as vitamins. Some products can qualify for a slimmed down version, with only six nutrition facts listed, and for small labels a linear format can be used to save space.

The nutrition panel must also meet minimum font size requirements and even the solid bars must be a particular size. It’s also important to make sure any nutrition claims you make are backed up with the correct information in your nutrition panel. Nutrition claims that don’t follow the guidelines are also one of the most frequent triggers for the FDA. Here’s an example from an actual FDA warning letter: “The nutrient content claim “60% Fewer Sugars” is used without including a reference food, as required by 21 CFR 101.13(j).”

  1. Allergens

If a product contains any of the eight “major food allergens” it must be highlighted on the label. This can be achieved from using a bold font for allergens in the ingredient list, or by listing them separately under a ‘contains’ header, e.g. contains peanuts.

The major allergens are: milk, egg, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts, soybeans.

  1. Net Quantity

Every product in the US must list its net quantity in metric and imperial measurements (e.g ounces and grams, or fluid ounces and milligrams). This weight statement must also be in the bottom third of a label and meet minimum font size requirements.

  1. Warning Statements

The FDA has a fairly long list of products, supplements and even containers that must be used with specific warnings. Some of the most common are, of course, alcohol, unpasteurized juice and unpasteurized cheese but the list also contains ingredients such as protein powders and psyllium husk.

  1. Bottle Bills

Eleven U.S. states have bottle bills — deposit-refund systems for beverage containers. If you sell a product in a recyclable container (usually aluminum, glass, plastic) in any of these states, your label must contain information about the scheme — at minimum the state abbreviation and the refund amount. Typically, the information for all state schemes is grouped together.

A Note on Proposed Changes to Nutrition Labeling

The US nutrition facts panel hasn’t changed for 20 years, so it was big news when changes to the label and the definition of serving sizes were proposed in 2014. Very little progress has been made on the proposals since then, however. So changes may be coming in the future, but there’s no need to worry about redesigning your packaging quite yet.

As labeling laws do change over time and can differ from state to state, it’s important to hire designers who are experienced with labeling regulations, and it’s useful to consult a lawyer (and of course, this article is advice only, based on my interpretation of the requirements.)

About The Author: Ian Everett is a freelance writer and studio manager at — a branding studio for businesses who make, bake, brew, craft, grow & create.

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