During an overseas holiday, I was asked by a fellow traveller what I did for a living. Because the term “prepress operator” is esoteric, my response was to say that I make food labelling and other printing. However, I was caught quite off-guard by the traveller’s response, which was “why do you have to make labels so darn hard to read?”.
That moment has stuck with me for some time now, and in this article I’d like to answer that traveller’s question comprehensively in an Australian setting.
In short: Limited real-estate vs too much information
That’s it in a nutshell – labels tend to be small in size, usually because the product that they contain is small in volume. Despite the small size, there’s also a lot of information to include within that size.
Details that have to be displayed by law
As a disclaimer, I am not a lawyer and this is not constituting legal advice on all specifications for a label.
If retailing food, the code developed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) details what should appear on food labelling. More information can be found on their site, but in short a food label should have:
- A Nutritional Information Panel;
- The ingredients and additives by ingoing weight, and in some circumstances the percentage of ingredients. For example, if the label is identified as strawberry jam in the branding, then the percentage of strawberries actually used in the product has to be given.
- Allergen information
- Directions for use or storage
- What the food is (e.g. is it strawberry jam, cookies, kombucha, etc)
- The contact address of the manufacturer
- The measurement of the weight or volume of the product
- Country of Origin label
Some information can be presented on the label but may be presented elsewhere on the container, such as:
- Batch or run of the product being produced
- Best before or Use-By dates
In addition, the position of where the measurement of the weight or volume of the product can appear on the label is rather rigid and structured.
Country of Origin
From 1 July 2018, food products sold in Australia must display a Country of Origin label. This label has a specific appearance that must be adhered to, along with guidelines of how the label must be phrased.
This is enforceable at law by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) – the Federal Government’s consumer watchdog which can – and does – give hefty fines to corporations and individuals for breaches of the Australian Consumer Law (ACL).
There is an online generator to create such labels, so having to maintain an array of assets for this task isn’t required – simply generate a label as and when they are needed.
Details that may also be required
Note that in the above code, that a barcode isn’t required by law. However, if the product is to be stocked on a large scale through distributors in a logistics chain, then it will usually need a barcode. In Australia this will usually be an EAN-13 barcode but in North America a UPC barcode is more likely.
Barcodes also have limited scaling, and GS1 (a provider of barcodes and related logistic products and services) indicates that a barcode should be placed at no less than 80% of its recommended size.
In GS1’s more detailed instructions on their website, they also recommend specific locations and orientations for the barcode, so can’t just go anywhere at any size.
These recommendations sound strict, but are done with the best of intentions so that a barcode will scan first time, every time, regardless of where the product was purchased. Remember, it’s a retailer’s aim to get that product from their shelf to your pantry or refrigerator with the least amount of fuss.
The size of the barcode can also be influenced by the retail chain that is selling the product and may recommend not proportionally scaling the barcode at all but leaving it at 100% size. It is best to check with the retail chain’s specifications first.
Container Deposit Scheme
As at the time of writing, all states and territories in Australia (except for Victoria and Tasmania) have some form of container deposit scheme, usually for soft drink containers. These schemes encourage consumers to return the containers to a collection facility in exchange for a refund for each item returned.
There are no national guidelines as to how the deposit notification should appear, so check with the relevant authority in each state.
While a Nutrition Information Panel is not required for alcoholic drinks, other information is required, such as:
- Alcoholic content (ALC/VOL)
- Standard drinks statement. This can either be a written statement i.e. CONTAINS APPROX. X.X STANDARD DRINKS or in the form of a graphic with its own requirements.
- As of 31 July 2020 and to be phased in over three years – a pregnancy warning label.
Additional voluntary icons or graphics for marketing purposes
Health star rating
This is a voluntary system to aid customers in making healthier choices.
Third party endorsements
Endorsements from third parties that require an audit trail to guarantee the claims made about the product or its packaging, such as:
- Organic certification, such as NASAA or Australia Certified Organic to certify that a product is organic;
- Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to certify the product or its packaging is from a sustainable source;
- Cultural preparation certifications such as Halal or Kosher.
These types of logos won’t use a generic logo, but will usually contain a unique identifier such as a number that can be tied to the particular supplier.
These logos usually have strict stylesheets that have to be adhered to such as size, color, position in relation to other elements etc, and these guidelines have to be taken into consideration when juxtaposing the artwork for the label. The third party (or its auditing agency) usually requests to see the artwork prior to approval for print to ensure that the logo is used appropriately and within its guidelines.
Australasian Recycling Label
This is a private initiative to reduce landfill by informing consumers how the packaging can be disposed of once the product is used. The logos aren’t in the public domain and permission must be sought for use of this artwork.
And of course, our own branding
With all of the other details now on the label as required, it’s time to add the branding and design to the label… if it will fit!
This is just for food!
The details listed in this article are only describing what goes on a food label in Australia and aren’t exhaustive – this article doesn’t even mention regulations that concern pharmaceuticals or industrial products that may contain harmful chemicals.
Don’t even try being creative for cigarettes
While cigarette cartons aren’t labels, it is worth mentioning this as it is currently unique to Australia. Since 1 December 2012, any tobacco product (including labels on loose tobacco such as roll your own cigarettes) in Australia must follow the plain packaging guide, which – on a regular pack of 25 cigarettes – features such marketing gems as:
- The brand and variant must be in Lucida Sans font in PANTONE Cool Gray 2C;
- The pack surface must be in PANTONE 448C (a greenish-brown color);
- A warning statement and graphic that covers at least 75% of the front surface without spaces separating the statement or graphic; and 90% of the back surface.
And this is just for Australia!
This article has focused on Australian food labels as they are the ones I am most familiar with and see on a daily basis at work. However, after spending time living in Canada, I recall seeing products that were sold nationwide (with exceptions of course) having to be in both English and French – good luck with getting all that information to fit now!
Can’t the label be bigger?
That can certainly provide more real-estate for the information to be displayed, but the size is often determined by:
- Price of label production. Larger labels usually cost more than smaller labels that have otherwise identical print specifications such as stock, inks and embellishments.
- Size of the package itself. An A4 page simply won’t fit on a cylinder that holds 100ml of a product;
- How the labels are applied. For example, if machine applied, there may be specifications that a larger label can’t fulfill that a smaller label can fulfill.
- Marketing. It may be more desirable for a consumer to see more of the product in the glass jar as opposed to a label that would obscure the contents.
I hope this article has explained why labels can be hard to read – put simply it is to cram all of the required information into a tiny space. I’ve tried to cover as much as I could without trying to encompass all labelling, but no doubt there are items that I’ve missed or aren’t applicable in your part of the world. Leave a comment below on anything I’ve missed or if there is anything specific to labels in your country.