Labeling and Nutritional Products in Asia and Elsewhere

For most consumers around the world, food labels can be confusing. Many don’t bother to read them at all. However, one aspect of labeling that does interest people is an expiration date, particularly when it comes to food or nutritional supplements. We want fresh products. So we read the label. Still there is some confusing terminology with “sell by” dates and “best by” dates, in addition to expiration dates.

Even in the U.S. which is globally acknowledged as a nation with high standards of product safety, labeling rules vary from state to state, creating what Dana Gunders, a Staff Scientist with the NRDC called, a patchwork of all sorts of different rules for different products and regulations around them.”

In 2011, NSF International developed voluntary Stability Testing Guidelines to assist firms which make nutritional supplements in acquiring accurate data to improve the accuracy of  expiration dates  on labels. The guidelines are voluntary, but are considered important to the industry at large. These guidelines encourage nutritional supplement companies to study the effects of long-term storage on their products and how the manufacturing process can affect the stability of nutritional supplements.

Asia (China in particular) is going through it’s own dramatic evolution and is experiencing some understandable growing pains along the way. Some recent events related to food quality control have negatively impacted China’s international reputation in that regard. Specifically, Wal-Mart’s substitution of fox meat for donkey meat, which greatly upset their Chinese consumers (not to mention horrifying international newsreaders who already have a limited cultural understanding of Chinese food preferences). Wal-Mart’s market share fell over 2 percent following the incident. Americans were also warned about a specific brand of imported Chinese infant formula after scores of babies in China developed kidney stones after consuming Sanlu, leading to the death of one infant.

Today, China is taking bold steps to improve product quality in all industries and to assure consumers at home and abroad that significant sanitation and quality measures have been put in place. China contends that a handful of neglectful companies have sullied the reputation of the nation as a whole. Subsequently, they have intensified food inspection through audits by their clients,  the Chinese government, and by third parties businesses employ to monitor internal quality control.

Today, each agriculturally-based product imported and packaged within China has to be labeled in Chinese according to their General Rules of Pre-Packaged Food Labeling. It is mandatory that labels contain the date the food was finalized and ready for market, and its expiration date defining how long the product will remain marketable and how long it will retain sufficient quality for consumption.

The nutritional supplements market in China is huge. Estimated at $10-$16 billion annually and growing at a rate of 6%. A burgeoning middle class and an expanding consumerist culture are driving the growth of the industry. Meanwhile, an aging population and a more health conscious population are creating an increased demand for nutritional products. In 2011 alone, the average Chinese consumer spent an estimated 10% of their income on health-related items and services. Hundreds of new health products have appeared for consumers in China, many of them coming from U.S. companies eager to tap into this profitable new market. Chinese firms are ready and willing to go toe-to-toe with foreign competitors for their piece of the pie. It’s a complex marketplace, however, with many regulations. These regulations have recently gotten tougher and are inhibiting new imports of nutritional supplements from outside interests. There are lengthy delays for required and expensive clinical testing, and many feel there is too much favoritism being shown to Chinese manufacturers. This has been a costly development of U.S. exporters to the tune of $8 billion in exports being stifled by the ongoing regulatory red tape. The wait may be worth it, however, as the Chinese health products market presently generates over $15 billion annually, fourth in the world behind the U.S., Japan, and Europe. One day soon, China may have the largest market in the world.

In Hong Kong, food plants have had a hard time meeting international quality control standards. Hygeine standards are said to be substandard and lab tests have revealed high levels of toxins and bacteria which could be harmful to the health of consumers. The mislabeling of packaging is a serious shortcoming and one that will need to be rectified. A recently instituted labeling law should improve nutrition labeling. Products which sell less than 30K units annually will not be required to meet the demands of new regulations. Pre-packaged foods will have bear “use by” and “ best by” labels going forward. No clear information was available regarding this labeling and nutritional supplements.

In 2013, the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) issued Rules on Health Food Inserts and Labels. These rules mandated that manufacturers and local agents of foreign manufacturers are responsible for labeling products with manufacturing dates and batch numbers among other specifics in the interest of “post marketing safety.”

Korean customers are demanding, and international companies that fail to satisfy them often don’t survive in the marketplace. To forge a successful operation, it’s necessary for these businesses to learn to understand the peculiarities and specifics of what Korean consumers find most important. Because this market is sometimes difficult to navigate, it is also a good test market.

In Korea, customers often think that the newer a product is, the more worth that it has.  For that reason, manufacturing dates are often seen as more important than expiration dates. Beginning in 2009, Seoul Milk started to include both production and expiration dates on their products. The company feels that production dates will offer their customers the most assurance regarding freshness of Seoul Milk products. Expiration dates, on the other hand, are left to the discretion of the customer. As a result of this new labeling endeavor, the company’s daily sales figures grew appreciably in the following two months. 64% of housewives surveyed concerning Seoul Milk reported that they regularly checked production dates on the packaging and an impressive 98% of them based their purchasing decisions on them. 

Nutritional products in Japan are subject to the same food labeling regulations as regular food products. These are all in compliance the Food Sanitation Act and Law Concerning Standardization and Proper Labeling of Agricultural and Forestry Products. In accordance with the Japan’s Health Promotion Act, nutritional products that meet the standards set by the government and the Minister of Consumer Affairs Agency can be labeled as Food with Health Claims. These products are divided into two sub-groups; Food with Nutrient Function Claims and Foods for Specified Health Uses. The inclusion of expiration dates is mandatory.

India has its own food labeling laws which require that companies use a date of expiry in lieu of a best before designation. Those who don’t comply with this designation may be found guilty of unfair trade practices.

The world is becoming increasingly aware of the need for customer awareness related to product freshness and health benefits. Through the continued promotion of accurate labeling, consumers are empowered with accurate information regarding the nutritional products they desire.

Sources used in the composition of the brief may be referenced here:


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