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Recently in Britain the Food Standards Agency issued advice that food items may be offered for sale labelled as "sunflower oil" (a product that has become scarcer owing to the Russo-Ukrainian war) which do not actually contain any sunflower oil . See for example this notice at food.gov.uk.

  1. What statutory or prerogative authority is the FSA exercising when it allows such false labelling?

  2. What public good is served? (I am not asking for opinions. Obviously if a statutory agency sets aside the usual labelling rules - and in particular, the requirement of truth - it must only do so in the public good. What public good is supposed to be being served here? It is stated that allowing items to be labelled "sunflower oil" that contain no sunflower oil "[maintains] the supply of certain food products", but this is nonsensical because replacing a product with another product does not maintain its supply, regardless of whether the replacement product is labelled accurately or falsely. Labelling the replacement as being the product it replaced appears to maintain its supply, but it doesn't actually maintain its supply. That is fact rather than opinion.)

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    Question 2 is directly answered by the notice itself: “This [crisis] has led to some food manufacturers urgently replacing sunflower oil with refined rapeseed oil before being able to make the change on the label.” “This is happening to maintain the supply of certain food products”. Without this exception, production of foods would be stalled until labels can be updated. There is a public interest in having a stable supply of food.
    – amon
    May 14 at 20:10
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    @ruffle If product ABC is normally made with ingredient X, and the manufacturer can only obtain ingredient Y, but changing the label would take 3 weeks, being able to use Y but still use old labels would help maintain the supply of ABC.
    – Someone
    May 14 at 20:24
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    Think about products like margarine or chips (french fries). If all margarine containers would have to be thrown away until new ones can be printed, there would be a lot less margarine in stores for some time. That would be a problem. So instead, the FSA is allowing the old containers with the old ingredient list to be used temporarily, though manufacturers might add a sticker to notify consumers of the substitution.
    – amon
    May 14 at 20:25
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    In this instance, these products aren't being sold as bottles of "Sunflower Oil", that are actually containing rapeseed oil, this is more where sunflower oil is a constituent ingredient of a larger product such as par-cooked frozen chips.
    – Richard
    May 15 at 8:55
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    It's not about a bottle of non-sunflower vegetable oil being sold as sunflower oil, but about the ingredients list on a manufactured product - "labelled as containing sunflower oil" from your link [emph mine]. So your cookies are still cookies, for example, not mis-sold
    – Chris H
    May 15 at 14:01

3 Answers 3

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What statutory or prerogative authority is the FSA exercising when it allows such false labelling?

As other answers have noted, they have executive discretion to "turn a blind eye" to what would normally be a violation of food safety laws and just decide that, right now, their government-mandated priorities are better served by not enforcing that particular letter of the law in these particular circumstances.

In theory, someone could probably challenge that decision and take them to court over it, claiming that they were derelict in their duties or not acting impartially and in the public interest. However, in this case they'd probably have a pretty good defense against and such claims, both due to having explicit authority to make such decisions in emergencies (as also noted in other answers), and also because the decision itself seems pretty fair (it applies to all producers using sunflower oil in their products) and justified by the circumstances (more on that below).


What public good is supposed to be being served here? It is stated that allowing items to be labelled "sunflower oil" that contain no sunflower oil "[maintains] the supply of certain food products", but this is nonsensical because replacing a product with another product does not maintain its supply, regardless of whether the replacement product is labelled accurately or falsely. Labelling the replacement as being the product it replaced appears to maintain its supply, but it doesn't actually maintain its supply. That is fact rather than opinion.

You seem to be assuming that this advice by the FAS is about allowing someone to sell bottles of "sunflower oil" that actually contain rapeseed oil. It's not.

It's not even really about products like crisps (potato chips, for those not in the UK) or pesto sauce or margarine that might contain sunflower oil as a major ingredient. For those products, the news page you linked indicates there are separate rules that apparently require, at a minimum, applying a sticker to notify consumers about the substitution:

"where sunflower oil is a key ingredient, such as crisps, retailers will imprint information on substitute oil onto existing labels."

However, think about all the other foodstuffs sold in stores that might include sunflower oil as a minor ingredient, like, say, granola, mustard sauce, instant noodles, mashed potato powder, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, bolognese pasta sauce or just plain white bread.

(If you're wondering where the random list of products above comes from, I just looked quickly around in my kitchen for products that had sunflower oil, rapeseed oil or some other neutral vegetable oil listed as a minor ingredient. There are surprisingly many.)

I assume you would agree that all of these products would still be substantially the same product regardless of which kind of vegetable oil was used in them.

The companies making all those products, and many others besides, typically order their product packaging in bulk, often from overseas, getting a new shipment of boxes or wrappers or labels maybe every few months or years. And of course those will all have the ingredients list printed on them, as mandated by law. If they want to change the ingredients, that means they have to send a new design to the company that makes the packaging and wait however many days or weeks or months it takes for the packaging company to make and ship the new packaging with the updated ingredients list to them.

Normally that's not much of a problem, because normally food manufacturers don't tend to change ingredients in a hurry. Usually they'd plan such changes months in advance, order the new packaging well ahead of time and probably use up all of the old packaging they have in stock before actually making the switch so that they don't have to throw it away.

(Companies that do need to frequently switch ingredients, e.g. due to seasonal or unpredictable availability, usually plan for that in advance e.g. by making their labels generic enough to accommodate the change or, where that's not allowed, finding workarounds like indicating the exact type or origin of the ingredients in codes that are stamped on the packaging late in the manufacturing process. That's why you occasionally see stuff in ingredients lists like "vegetable oils (rapeseed, sunflower or soybean)" or "produced in EU and non-EU countries" or "see last letter of expiration code for country of origin: A = Spain, B = Morocco, C = Israel, D = China".)


In this particular case, however, a lot of companies that had been using sunflower oil in their products, and expected it to remain easily available, were caught short when the war in Ukraine broke out and the price of sunflower oil suddenly went way up, as companies selling the oil realized that there probably wouldn't be much sunflower oil exported from Ukraine this year.

At that point, the companies that had been using sunflower oil as a generic cooking oil in their products would normally have a limited number of options, none of them particularly good (for either the companies or consumers):

  1. Keep using sunflower oil at whatever cost and transfer the increased cost to consumer prices. (To make things worse, the more companies do this, the higher the price of sunflower oil will rise, as they're basically competing for a limited supply.)

  2. Switch to a different type of oil and order new packaging ASAP, hoping that it will arrive before your existing stock of sunflower oil runs out. (This might take longer than usual, since presumably other companies are also in the same situation, so the packaging makers are probably swamped with sudden orders. Also, your stock of old packaging is now useless, and you might have to throw it out.)

  3. Order the new packaging immediately and pay extra for expedited delivery. Again, you'd be competing with lots of other companies who also really want to be the first to get their new packaging, so premiums for fast delivery are likely to be high if you can get it at all. All of that extra cost will also likely transfer into consumer prices.

  4. Use the existing packaging but apply stickers with updated ingredients lists on top of the old ones. That's not nearly as easy and cheap as it sounds, not only because you still have to get the stickers printed (and the printing companies are probably also swamped with orders), but also because you'll have to apply them to every single box or bag or carton, likely by hand. That's a lot of expensive manual labor that will, again, likely increase consumer prices.

  5. Just halt production until you can get new, updated packaging (or more sunflower oil at a reasonable price). That's probably the worst option for both the manufacturers and the consumers, since it results in lots of lost income for the manufacturers and product shortages for the consumers. Still, if all the other options are even more expensive, some manufacturers might be forced to do this.

The exceptional decision by the FAS to selectively enforce the food labeling requirements in this particular case basically offers these food manufacturers one more option: switch to an alternative type of oil now, but keep using the old packaging until you can replace it.

Practically speaking that's probably the best outcome for almost everyone. There's really very little difference between sunflower and rapeseed oil — both are neutral, mostly flavorless vegetable oils suitable for generic cooking purposes — and most people probably can't really tell them apart, especially not when they're used as minor ingredients among many others.

Of course, there may still be people who really don't like the taste of rapeseed oil (assuming they can taste it) or are allergic to it (which, as the news article you linked notes, is very rare) or have some ethical or religious objection to consuming it (not that I'm aware of any, but I'm sure someone out there has one). Hence the news release, so that those people who might be affected by the substitution can find about it in advance.

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    Technically no "food safety" laws have been violated, other than for the vanishingly small number of people who are allergic to rapeseed oil. Its not about safety, its just about consumer information. And even those laws are quite outdated these days as you could just slap a QR code on the packaging and realistically 99% of customers could read the latest label online, given that all consumers were forced to get smartphones for various Covid check-ins/vaxx verifications in the past 2 years. May 17 at 3:01
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    @JonathanReez they would need to update the QR code, then, or add information on this web page like "for expirations before X, it's sunflower oil, for expirations after X, it's rapeseed oil". May 17 at 16:01
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Executive discretion

In common law jurisdictions the executive has the prerogative to enforce or not enforce particular laws. The courts will not interfere provided that prerogative is executed for proper purposes.

It is that prerogative that allows governments to have a “blitz” on speeding or seatbelts where they direct more resources at a particular problem for a short time. It’s also that prerogative that allows a police officer to issue a caution rather than having to arrest every lawbreaker they see.

In general, courts will not allow the prosecution of a person who was given permission by the executive to break the law: it’s seen as an abuse of power to say “sure, you can do that” followed by “gotcha!”

This is a general power but, in this particular case, the FSA has the explicit power to make emergency orders.

What “public good”?

The link is explicit as to why it was issued. Further the liked risk assessment says:

It is highly unlikely that industry will be able to re-label products as quickly as oil substitutions may occur, which could lead to the presence of mis-labelled products on the market.

Basically, producers have a bunch of packaging that says “sunflower oil” and no time to get packaging that says “rapeseed oil”.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Dale M
    May 15 at 22:24
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What statutory or prerogative authority is the FSA exercising when it allows such false labelling?

The Food Standards Act; 1,2 grants the Agency the right to act in the public interest to protect consumers.

The main objective of the Agency in carrying out its functions is to protect public health from risks which may arise in connection with the consumption of food (including risks caused by the way in which it is produced or supplied) and otherwise to protect the interests of consumers in relation to food.

Section 36, 3 makes it abundantly clear that this is also in relation to the interests of consumers in relation to the labelling of food.

In this Act the expression “interests of consumers in relation to food” includes (without prejudice to the generality of that expression) interests in relation to the labelling, marking, presenting or advertising of food, and the descriptions which may be applied to food.

What public good is served?

So in this instance, the FSA has decided to use its discretion under Paragraph One of their charter legislation to allow the labelling of food in a way that serves the interests of the public, (e.g. in order to preserve the supply-chain and ensure that produce is still available to buy in shops) despite that labelling being inaccurate, in much the same way as they have allowed the sale of free-range eggs that aren't free-range.


Note that the guidance offered to producers is that this disrection applies where sunflower oil is a constituent ingredient of a product, rather than in cases where subflower oil is a major (or sole) ingredient, in which case they will temporarily allow products to be re-labelled with a sticker or stamp onto the product's ingredient list and label.

Where sunflower oil exists as an ingredient in products, retailers will be substituting it with other safe oils, such as rapeseed oil. Retailers are looking to change product labels as soon as possible; where sunflower oil is a key ingredient, such as crisps, retailers will imprint information on substitute oil onto existing labels.

Food.gov.uk - FSA and FSS advise consumers on substitution of ingredients in certain food products to avoid food supply disruption

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    I think the eggs one is an important example: it happens most years, and essentially nobody cares. It’s hard to predict exactly when it will happen, so hard to plan to buy alternatively labelled packaging. That’s an even more extreme case than the oil, because eggs are the product not an ingredient.
    – Tim
    May 15 at 15:56
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    @Tim - I've noticed that the FSA are allowing eggs to be labelled as 'Free Range' with only a proviso added to the shelf-edge, not even onto the boxes themselves.
    – Richard
    May 15 at 15:57
  • I think there’s a time limit on how long they can do it: 16 weeks or something? That might just be when they have to add the warning sign.
    – Tim
    May 15 at 15:59
  • @Tim - That appears to be in conjunction with DEFRA; "A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The 16-week grace period we allowed for free-range eggs has now been exceeded, and eggs must now be marketed as ‘barn eggs’. We have worked closely with the sector and retailers to implement these changes as smoothly as possible.” - theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/18/…. Possibly worthy of its own question.
    – Richard
    May 15 at 16:02
  • @Tim yes, a lot of signs and stickers have been applied in the last few weeks as it's dragged on for long enough now
    – Chris H
    May 15 at 20:08

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