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Info zone – Legal requirements for menu descriptions

29 July 2002 by
Info zone – Legal requirements for menu descriptions

Brenda Smith runs two brasseries, one in North Yorkshire and the other in Lancashire, and prides herself on providing good food at affordable prices.

Smith changes her menus every six months, introducing new dishes and tweaking the most successful ones. When she and her chef have decided on the new descriptions, she always liaises with her local authority in North Yorkshire to ensure that the menus do not contain statements that could breach legal requirements.

Recently, Smith has heard from other local restaurateurs that trading standards officers (TSOs) are carrying out spot checks on menus in the area. Her local authority reviewed her menus only five months ago, so she is initially confident that she will have no problems. However, knowing that the inspectors may call, she looks again at the descriptions on her menu, and two items now make her concerned about whether she has been as diligent as she first thought.

The first is her popular burger, described as a "quarter-pounder with cheese - a 100% British beefburger in a sesame bun covered with cheese and spicy chilli sauce, served with chunky fries and salad".

The other is soup and a half-sandwich, the description of which reads: "organic cream of tomato soup and a half-sandwich with filling of your choice". This is an incredibly popular dish, especially at lunchtimes, and sales went up by 10% when she added the "organic" part to the description. n

This case study is a work of fiction and consequently the names, characters and incidents portrayed in the article are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.

If you say "100%British beefburger", be sure it's all beef, all British, and legally a burger

What the expert advises

Hilary Ross is a solicitor with Paisner & Co, based in London
An increase in TSO interest in menus is to be expected. The effects of the campaign for honest labelling in the retail trade are slowly filtering down to caterers and, while it is recognised that some degree of advertising "puff" can be used when writing menus, the law prohibits the use of misleading descriptions.

Smith's beefburger description raises several issues. She should be aware that, to be called a beefburger, it must be made up of at least 80% meat. Smith has claimed that hers are 100% so she should double-check with her suppliers that this is indeed the case. If it is a spurious claim, then she may find herself in trouble with the TSO. Similar care should be taken when referring to product origin, such as "British beef".

Several problems are also raised by the sale of her soup. Technically, only the tomatoes may be described as organic, not the soup. Therefore, it should be "cream of tomato soup made with organic tomatoes". However, unless Smith's establishments are approved to prepare organic meals by the UK Register of Organic Food Standards or one of its approved bodies, such as the Soil Association, the soup cannot be referred to as organic. If it is, she could be prosecuted under the Trades Descriptions Act 1968 or the Food Safety Act 1990.

With increased media and consumer attention focusing on the food industry as a whole, descriptions in menus bring up an issue that caterers cannot afford to ignore.

Be aware

Local authority approval is useful, as it can form the basis of a due diligence defence. However, it is not a guarantee against prosecution. Other local authorities may not agree with the home authority's advice, or circumstances and legislation may have changed since approval was given.

There has also been confusion about the term "quarter-pounder" and whether the product meets the requirements for weights and measures to be given in the metric system. Until this is resolved, there remains the possibility that some local authorities may request that menus be changed.

Contacts

Hilary Ross at Paisner & Co 020 7353 0299

Food Standards Agency helpline
0845 757 3012

Local Authorities Co-ordinating Body on Food and Trading Standards (Lacots)
020 8688 1996

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