Raising ethical standards

Ten laws that promote food ethics

In August of 2018, the US State of Missouri passed a law that amongst other things, banned naming anything other than ‘livestock or poultry’ as meat. A lobby group immediately launched a legal challenge claiming the ruling went against free speech. With echoes of the continuing almond ‘milk’ argument, both sides agree they’re continuing to seek a framework that labels food ethically.

In England, food laws are enforced through a jigsaw of authorities including local Trading Standards, DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency. Legislation often grows through public health needs. But what of the laws that raised our collective standard of ethics, whether intentional or not? Questions of integrity appear at all levels of the catering industry and generally fall into three areas; supply, processing and sales. Here we’ll look at a selection of laws and regulations that raised ethical standards.


    1. Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act 2006 effectively outlawed whaling.
      In 1986 the International Whaling Commission issued a moratorium on whaling. The UK signed the directive, effectively ending the trade (some argue it was finished far before this; already being subject to importation bans and the simple lack of a UK market). The 2006 Act did not directly protect whales but added a firm layer of favourable status by placing a responsibility on public bodies to preserve biodiversity and natural habitats.
    2. British Lion Code of Practice set new welfare standards for hens.This was formed following 1988’s revelations that the British egg industry was suffering from a Salmonella epidemic. Aside from stringent health controls, ethics were established through the greatly increased animal welfare monitoring that the Lion Code enforces (to RSPCA standards). Whilst not outlawing cages, there are better conditions including lower densities of flocks; more space to roam for birds designated ‘free range’, regular vaccinations and overall stress reduction strategies.
    3. 1989 Basel Convention reduced mercury levels in fish.Whilst individual countries had laws in place to prevent ‘spent’ hazardous materials entering their food chains, international waters were uncontrolled. That was until the environmental treaty was signed by 170 countries, becoming law in 1992. In addition to disposal rules, transportation of toxic substances, such as mercury, became illegal without prior risk-minimising approvals. The response to decades of illegal dumping at sea (frequently between Europe and Africa) is estimated to have cut instances by over 90%. Waste, including battery acid, car oil and lead-based paints are ringfenced from marine life.
    4. Regulation (EC) No 183/2005 fed better food to animals.Though placing HACCP into law was still being debated for humans, the principles were already applicable to the animal feed supply chain. The new regulations added a significant set of scientific and business practices to suppliers and operators. These included the ethical stance of traceability through registering establishments; a system to ensure feed is safe to export (even if the receiving country doesn’t match standards), and it recognised feed in the ‘aquaculture’ business.


    1. Regulation (EC) No 1333/2008 stopped feeding additives to young children.Designed to change the texture, appearance or flavour of food, mixing additives into infant formula was banned upon scientific advice (rules were already in place regarding ingredients that are designed to produce a balanced meal). Amongst other uses, these rules stopped babies consuming colours, sweeteners and thickening agents.
    2. The Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 recognised vulnerable workers.The Morecambe Bay disaster saw 21 cockle pickers drown, caught by a rising tide. The act, brought in the same year, is designed to guard workers in agriculture, shellfish, horticulture or food processing and packing. It established an authority by which any provider of such a workforce is now licensed and can be subject to investigation for false documentation, forced labour, debt slavery activities.
    3. Hygiene of Foodstuffs Regulation (EC) No 852/2004 made HACCP mandatory.First recommended by the World Health Organisation in the 1990s, it became the law in 2006. Of the seven principles, what made this particularly ethical was number 6; procedures to verify systems work correctly. This extension to annual Food Safety inspections meant food trades now operated a continuous review of customer protections, instilled through training and documentation.


  1. Regulation (EC) 1924/2006 stops false health claims.Previously comprised of many Acts, and designed to inform a consumer before purchase, food labelling extends far beyond allergens and use-by dates. The Department of Health is a major stakeholder when food claims Medicinal or Nutritional benefits. Amongst rules affecting the catering industry include signage with claims that could be mistaken to apply to the entire meal. For example, ‘source of fibre’.
  2. Regulation (EC) No. 178/2002 forced retail transparency.Rules were already in place to withdraw food from supply chains that risked public injury. This legislation’s promotion of ethics can be found in the law’s recall purpose. Operators were now compelled to inform the public, including past customers where possible, to ‘take action’.
  3. Regulation (EC) No. 882/2004 fights food fraud. In 2016 it was discovered peanuts had been added to ground hazelnuts in a case of substitution that not only passed-off one product for another but placed consumers at risk of fatal allergic reaction. The means to alert the European marketplace of contaminated hazelnut flour was provided by this regulation.

In my research, I found many ethical outcomes are a by-product of remedial legislation required to save lives, whether human or not. With the increase in health-related laws, such as those designed to tackle obesity (the Soft Drinks Industry Levy) and guidance around advertising (junk food placement rules), charities such as the Food Ethics Council continue to lobby for an increase in purpose-built ethical laws. These reach further than Fairtrade and hygiene and include themes such as food security and food waste.

In the meantime, it is for consumers to exercise choice across the diverse landscape of food retailers. Whilst some outlets sell ethical products, others have built entire brands around their actions. Take for example the Co-op Group’s trading pillars – including strong procurement, fair sourcing, and human rights policies; and investing a share of profits into sustainable developments worldwide.

The material located in this post and on our site is for review and informational purposes only, is general in nature, and is not intended to and should not be relied upon or construed as a legal opinion or legal advice regarding any specific issue or factual circumstance. Please seek your own advice.

James Waldron is Content Manager at Zupa

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