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Label detective: Recipe modifications

Label detective: Recipe modifications

Do food manufacturers have to tell you if they change their recipe? Food law specialists at Simpson Grierson find out.

Taste is a big part of why we buy food, so when there has been a change in the recipe for our favourite biscuit, we care.

Many businesses reformulate products for a range of reasons, including changing consumer preference, government health policies, economic factors and changing manufacturing processes. But, in general, what matters to consumers is the product we can’t live without suddenly tastes or feels different, or has new ingredients.

A lot of the time, businesses will let customers know there has been a change in a product’s recipe. Label claims such as ‘new and improved’, ‘better taste’ or ‘new recipe, same great taste’ are familiar. But is a business legally required to let us know when it changes a recipe?

What’s the law?

The position at law is a little unclear. The Fair Trading Act (FTA) prohibits false and misleading representations about goods and services. But whether or not a business is legally required to tell us their recipe has changed is not so clear cut. If the change means specific claims are no longer true, then the law would require those claims to be updated. For instance, if a popular muesli bar made ‘gluten free’ claims, but its recipe was changed to include gluten ingredients, the ‘gluten free’ claim would need to be removed and customers informed of the change. If a change didn’t affect any claims, just our taste buds, we’d expect an update, but businesses may not be Legally required to provide one.

Legal requirement or not, businesses often choose to inform of recipe changes to avoid a public backlash. But, even in being open and transparent, it is not always possible to avoid a bad reaction, as in these high-profile cases:

  • Cadbury changed its Crème Egg recipe, resulting in negative reaction. Changes included the dairy milk chocolate shell being replaced with a ‘generic cocoa mix’ shell and a decrease in size from 40g to 39g. And some claimed the filling consistency had also changed.
  • When Nestlé changed its New Zealand Milo recipe, consumers expressed their displeasure on social media. Changes included the removal of vitamin A and vanilla flavour and the addition of vitamin D and extra B vitamins.

Where’s the line in the sand?

Whether there is a breach of the FTA largely depends on the changes made. For example, if claims, like ‘new and improved recipe’ or ‘great new taste’, are made where the formula hasn’t changed but the manufacturing process has. Likewise, if a label claims ‘original recipe’ but the ingredients or recipe have changed, the claim may be false. If changes to a product are significant or fundamental to its composition, failure to disclose the changes could be a misleading representation.

Consumer tip

Look out for ‘new and improved’ claims but don’t always expect to find them on product labels. If in doubt, visit the business’ website for more information about a product or contact the business to ask questions.

First published: May 2019

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