Court of Justice sees case over Tesco food label translations

A court case focused on the British grocery chain Tesco’s food label translations has reached the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), the highest court in the EU.

According to Food Navigator, a publication covering the food and beverage industry, Tesco found itself in hot water after releasing an imprecise — and possibly automatically generated  — translation of the ingredient list for a food sold in its stores in the Czech Republic.

The details of the case focus on a chocolate drink, which Tesco sold in the Czech Republic in 2016 — in translating the label for the product from English into Czech, Tesco used an imprecise translation that appears to have been generated by a machine translation (MT) system, rather than a human translator. One of the ingredients listed, chocolate powder, was translated as “čokoládový prašek,” which literally means “chocolate powder.” However, that’s not the term that most Czech speakers would use. Instead, Czech law requires that food labels refer to it as “čokoláda v prašku,” a phrase which literally translates into English as “chocolate in powder.”

While the difference may appear small, Czech authorities deemed the translation an error that made the product worth recalling. Tesco did not agree, noting that the difference in meaning was negligible and not worth recalling and relabeling the product — still, Czech authorities deemed that the label was misleading to Czech speakers. Tesco wound up relabeling the product anyway. But the case recently made its way up to the CJEU, which, according to Food Navigator, has ruled against Tesco.

“A compound ingredient may only be listed among the ingredients of the product without a precise specification of its precision if that compound ingredient is labeled in the precise language version of the Member State concerned,” reads the CJEU’s ruling.

While Tesco hasn’t explicitly stated whether or not the translation was automatically generated, attempts to translate “chocolate powder” from English to Czech using popular MT systems like Google Translate yield the same translation which the court ruled against.


Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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