When the packaging minces words

What's the first thing you look for on a label before putting food in your shopping cart? The date of manufacture, an expiry date, some nutritional facts? Or just the price tag? Or nothing at all?

If nothing is your answer, you are likely to be the in majority of Thai consumers. Perhaps label reading is not in our culture just yet, although I have begun to see people reading food labels or comparing the price per unit between brands at the supermarket. But if you are one of the few who do read, you still need to do it with care. Most shoppers tend not to question the information provided.

I was shopping at a UK-based hypermarket in Bangkok when a promotional set of fabric softener grabbed my attention. The sign on the shelf suggested that two packs of the liquid, 700ml each, were being sold at a special price, but a close look at the product revealed it was 600ml. I believe most shoppers would have grabbed the items without checking what they were really getting.

At the same hypermarket, my friend was later drawn to a sale sign on the shelf which showed, in a large font, the discounted price of a computer accessory as 1,989 baht. But it's always wise to spend a few seconds to check its original price. In this case, before the discount the item cost 1,990 baht, so the saving was a whopping 1 baht.

A recent forum on food labels held by the Foundation for Consumers echoed the problem. Of almost 100 frozen product samples that were put on display, more than half carried labels with unclear information. Yet these products _ prominent in convenience stores and supermarkets _ sell very well as they suit the needs of city people who tend to look for quick meals.

An ideal label should provide visible and adequate nutritional information, an expiry date, and the location of production. The name of the food should also match the main ingredient listed on the package.

Patchara Klaewkla, the foundation's food alert system officer, told me a label should indicate the precise percentages of the main ingredients. Shrimp dumplings should be made mainly from shrimp, rather than pork or other meats, for example.

Another expert, Visith Chavasit from Mahidol University's Institute of Nutrition, said a label should alert consumers about whether the ingredients would cause them to inadvertently go against their religious beliefs, or could harm or kill them in case of allergies. There should be enough nutritional information to determine whether the product offers value for money. For instance, a food label should at least indicate if the product contains meat to warn vegetarians, or pork in case of Muslims, or egg, wheat flour, or soy beans for those with allergies.

However, the Food and Drugs Administration's food label regulation only requires a minimum of 10% of the meat to be indicated on the label. So dumplings with only 10% shrimp can still be called shrimp dumplings.

I agree with the above. The name should suggest its main ingredient. But it seems ridiculous to put everything in the product name itself: who wants to see a packet of pork, chicken, fish, and crab dumplings? We all know that the shrimp or crab meats are value-added to regular dumplings. Crab-only dumplings can never be found, even in dim sum restaurants.

It's not possible for a food producer, commercially, to produce dumplings made entirely from shrimp meat. Not to mention that it would be unaffordable for most consumers.

But there should be no excuse for some tricky producers to make their food labels ambiguous.

Take crab cakes as example. The food should be called "mixed-meat cakes" given the varied contents _ mainly pork, a large portion of chicken and fish, and a small amount of crab meat. Others have gone too far by using the generic term "meat" as the key ingredient on the label.

So in the market, you may unknowingly buy a sausage with unknown kinds of meat. It may be pork, chicken, beef, or unwanted inner parts.

Who knows, we are probably eating dog or rat meat while munching on that yummy sausage!


Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.

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Writer: Sirinya Wattanasukchai
Position: Reporter