Why are food labels hard to read?

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.

An example of the Country of Origin label

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

Barcodes

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.

Specifications from GS1 relating to EAN-13 barcodes at 100% 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.

Three items commonly seen on flavoured milk cartons (from top clockwise): The Country of Origin label; The Australasian Recycling Label; and The Container Deposit Scheme.

Alcoholic drinks

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.
Pregnancy warning label, phasing in began on 31 July 2020.

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.

Your thoughts

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.

Reacting to bad Redacting

In early January 2019, a high profile case of “Redaction Fail” made the headlines when it was revealed that the redacted material could still be read if copied and pasted into a word processor. My initial reaction was of concern, because my first thought was that the redaction feature in Adobe Acrobat had a serious drawback. However, this was soon put to rest once I viewed the actual document in question, and realised that Acrobat’s redaction feature had not been used, but another low-tech method was used instead.

Low-tech method 1: Highlight

In Microsoft Word, it’s easy to change the highlighter colour to black to act as a redaction. Similarly, Adobe InDesign has a similar feature where an underline can be created that is the same colour as the text and adjusting the height of the line to the top of the ascender to the bottom of the descender.

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Looks great on screen, and looks great on a PDF.

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Be assured though that this is NOT REDACTED. I know this because I can reveal what was written in several ways:

  • By highlighting the text and copying into any text editor;

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  • By using an accessibility feature that will allow the line (or page) to be read back

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  • In Acrobat Professional, using the Edit feature to change the colour of the type

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  • Editing the PDF with the Enfocus Pitstop plug-in in a similar fashion to the last method, or even remove the redaction itself or view the type under the redaction using the wireframe view.

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  • By highlighting the text, opening the tags panel and selecting Find Tag from Selection

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  • By highlighting the text, opening the content panel and looking up the content by its page location

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  • Via the print production tools in Acrobat Professional, go to the output preview and in the Show portion of the dialog box, select Text from the dropdown

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(The above method can be circumvented if the redaction character style has a type fill of [None] and the underline coloured [Black]).

To be fair, no security settings had been applied to this test file. If I apply password security so that copying, pasting and accessibility is off, the last three methods can still be employed to see this text, albeit with many options greyed out:

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Low-tech method 2: Redact Font

Fonts (such as the redacted font by David Walsh) give the type a redacted look without the need to create a highlighter-style effect.

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Again, rest assured that this document is NOT REDACTED.

Park the fact that the copy has now reflowed after the style has been applied, many of the previous methods can still be employed to read this text.

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Yes, there is also the drastic action of employing this technique, adding security AND converting all text to outlines using a method described over at InDesignSecrets, but doing so will make a PDF that is:

  • Unsearchable and unprintable;
  • Has no accessibility features;
  • Involves manipulating the original artwork, rather than a file that has to have redactions applied.

If you need to redact the file, use Adobe Acrobat’s Redact feature, and make sure to read the instructions to be sure that is being used properly.

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The instructions on the Adobe Acrobat help site for using this feature are quite useful.

A related redaction warning

If photographs also need to be redacted, note that if unredacted versions of the images exist online, chances are that Google’s Image search or Tineye may be able to find the unredacted originals.

Take the following image that was used on this site two articles ago. I’ve done a basic redaction our faces and run the redacted image through exifpurge to remove any metadata.

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If I drag and drop this image into Google’s image search, it is able to find the unredacted versions of this photo that are currently online:

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While this example was a light-hearted example, much more serious examples can be found via ABC Australia’s Media Watch programme.

 

Some basics of noteworthiness

As a user of InDesign since its creation, I’m used to many of the quirks and behaviours of the software, as well as general practices that are accepted in the printing industry. In recent times, I’ve noticed issues that would generally be known by experienced InDesign users, but these particular issues have come from users that are either new to InDesign or print media generally.

On that note, it’s worth going over a few issues that newer users of InDesign may be unfamiliar with.

Viewing PDFs

One of the first Colecandoo posts was an article that described the issues that can happen when checking PDF proofs via email: https://colecandoo.com/2011/08/21/the-proof-is-in-your-email/

When this article was written, it was during an era when Adobe Acrobat was the PDF viewer that had the lion’s share of users since its creation in 1993. Nowadays, Adobe Acrobat (Reader or Pro) is one of several programs that can open a PDF, given that PDFs can also be opened by software installed in an operating system (e.g. Preview on a Mac) or any Internet browser (e.g. Google Chrome).

So what’s the issue? A PDF should look the same no matter what software is opening it, right? Well, no – not all PDF readers can interpret all features such as:

  • Overprints;
  • Layers;
  • Interactive Form Fields;
  • Initial view;

So if receiving a PDF from a print supplier, ensure that Adobe Acrobat is the software used to open the PDF.

Graphic file formats into InDesign

When Quark Xpress dominated the printers’ landscape, the two formats that were largely used for placing graphics were EPS for vector graphics or raster images that contained paths; or TIFF for flat raster images. Once the Adobe Creative Suite became “king of the hill”, the two formats recommended by Adobe for use within Adobe InDesign were either AI for vector graphics or PSD for any raster images. The suite also allowed PDF and INDD files to be placed into InDesign as well. The main reason was that these particular formats preserved transparencies, effects and layers, but did not have to be re-saved from their native file formats to another format in order to be placed.

Enter the age where the internet is all around us, and GIF, JPG, SVG and PNG file formats are the norm. From my point of view, I’m increasingly seeing these file formats used in a print reproduction workflow. My concern is largely with PNG or GIF, given that JPG works within a print workflow, and SVG cannot be imported into InDesign at the time of writing this article. While these two file formats do preserve a transparency effect, they are not necessarily designed to work within Adobe InDesign and can result in some strange and bizarre errors.

One noteworthy feature of PSD is the ability to make non-destructive changes to artwork by making adjustment layers – something not available natively to JPG, PNG or GIF.

Given that InDesign can now also be used to also design media for an on-screen intent only (e.g. exporting to JPG or PNG, Publish Online, interactive PDF, HTML via in5), it would be great if PNG, GIF and SVG formats could be used in the first instance, and perhaps it is something the Adobe InDesign team could look into further.

Microsoft Word and other content

Remember when Microsoft Word was the go-to file format for word processing? Nowadays, there are dozens of word processors that are either open source (e.g. Libre Office, Open Office), part of the operating system (e.g. Pages) or accessed online (e.g. Google Docs), and that’s only the word processors – not to mention spreadsheets or presentation software. At the time of writing this, Adobe InDesign – as shipped – can import Microsoft Word or Excel files, but many other proprietary formats usually need to be converted to Word, Excel, RTF or TXT.

There is also a limitation on what will import when placing a Microsoft Word file. Users with recent versions of Microsoft Word will notice that newly created equations do not import.

Once again, it’s worth noting that times have changed, and to reflect the habits of users worldwide, perhaps it is worth having a look at what InDesign can and cannot import.

Print requirements vs On-Screen requirements

Artwork for on-screen publishing in InDesign such as PDF or publish online does not have to be as forgiving as publishing for print. Such examples of on-screen artwork are

  • not having to extend past the trim area,
  • any colour format is acceptable,
  • printing phenomenon such as Creep are not an issue.

When preparing artwork for print, these issues are much more important for accurate print reproduction. It’s impossible to cover all print issues in one article, but they have generally been talked about in other Colecandoo articles over the years.

Prepress vs Design

For those who have navigated every page of Colecandoo, you might notice that I’m not the best designer in the world. That said, this site isn’t intended for users to learn design. As the masthead says: Prepress and Indesign Advice. The distinction is that the purpose of prepress is to make sure that artwork submitted for print output will not pose any printing problem and will give the best finished result not just for the client, but the rest of the production process. For Designers who prepare print artwork as part of their role, understanding and appreciating prepress requirements certainly contributes to better artwork output and happier clients.

It’s worth remembering that a great designer doesn’t necessarily know anything about prepress, as they may design for other media or industries; and a great prepress operator doesn’t mean they’re a great designer.

Training vs Self Taught

Programs like Quark Xpress and Adobe InDesign admittedly have steep learning curves. I would not expect anyone unfamiliar with InDesign to download and install it, and create fantastic artwork on their first try, let alone their twentieth. I was fortunate enough to attend training courses for Quark Xpress and Adobe PageMaker, with many of the PageMaker features evolving into Adobe InDesign. It is also true to say that much of what I have learned in InDesign is also self taught, but much of my training was also on-the-job training in several printing factories and service bureaux who had experienced users of the software. There are parts of Adobe InDesign I wouldn’t have been able to grasp if it wasn’t for training, such as:

  • XML
  • Javascript
  • Advanced bookwork, such as indexes, cross references etc

But I understand that not everyone is so lucky. Sometimes, people are thrown into InDesign as part of a new job where they have never used it before, and neither has anyone else in the company because it’s specific to that role.

For those who are reading this that are self-taught, I would definitely encourage you to try some of the leading publications for Adobe InDesign such as Real World Adobe InDesign CC, or A Designer’s Guide to Adobe InDesign and XML. Have a look at some of the courses offered by Linked-in Learning or any Adobe Certified Expert. Finally, if you’re lucky enough to be in such a situation, attend conferences aimed at InDesign users, such as the CreativePro conference.

 

Quick-tip: rename all links in an InDesign file

When working with difficult clients, it can be tempting to take out some frustration on the clients’ files, such as naming links within a file rather inappropriately. An example would be a picture placed into an InDesign file with the name lousypicture.jpg. Seems harmless enough, but this is a tame example compared to what might be going through your mind as a reader. Also, no – I’ve never done this and I’ve always behaved in a professional manner to my clients.

Seems like harmless enough fun… until the client requests packaged InDesign files of their artwork. Then it’s easy for the client to see all of the inappropriate names that were given to the links in their artwork, and unless they have a sense of humour about it, expect to receive… negative feedback.

If you’ve been in a situation like this and needed to rename all links in a document, then scripter Kasyan Servetsky has an ideal script for you: batch rename and link. Once the script is run, it renames and relinks all links in an InDesign file based on their page number and their position on the page. So a name such as lousypicture.jpg will now become AA_0002_r1.jpg

I’d originally used this script four years ago when I received a strange use-case where a customer wanted the images from their annual report labelled in terms of what pages the images were on, and this script was quite handy for that.

However, I can see the more appropriate use-case of having to rename inappropriate or offensively-named links when handing files over to clients.

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