Philippines Seeks to Stop Entry of Foreign Products That Violate Label Translation Rules

Filipino translation of foreign product labels

Multinational manufacturers and local traders that have been pumping large volumes of products made in Indonesia and Korea (among other countries) into the import-driven Philippine market may soon no longer be able to escape existing laws requiring the translation of product labels.

According to a government press release dated December 4, 2022, Senator Sherwin Gatchalian has filed a bill seeking to expand the coverage of the Philippine Consumer Act by requiring the “translation of product labels written in foreign characters or languages [into English or Filipino] before they are allowed to enter the country.”

Gatchalian had been calling for proper label translation since at least 2017. While the Philippine Consumer Act requires that all consumer products sold domestically be labeled for information such as “general make or active ingredients,” the law, which was enacted 30 years ago, is in serious need of an update. For one thing, it remains silent on language.

To understand foreign product labels, domestic consumers rely on a number of Administrative Orders that require the translation of product labels into at least one of two official languages, English or Filipino.

Among them, a Food and Drug Administration order from 2014 that states: “In the case of imported food products, labels where the information is declared in a foreign language shall always carry the corresponding English translation” — lingua franca in the Philippines and commonly used by government.

Labeling requirements by the country’s National Meat Inspection Service also state that text should be written in English or Filipino.

And the Department of Trade and Industry issued an order back in 2019 that mandates “the primary use of Filipino and/or English” in promotional material, such as signages, billboards, advertisements, brochures, flyers, labels, menus, and other business or marketing materials.

The same order states that foreign languages are allowed, “provided that a corresponding translation is made in both or either Filipino or English” and the “translation shall be as easily visible and legible as the foreign language.”

According to the same Trade Department order, penalties can reach as high as Php 300,000 (USD 5,300) per violation up to the third offense, which “shall carry with it the cancellation of the business name certificate” and the “revocation of business registration, permit, license, and other regulatory clearances.”

Motivated by regular Trade Department inspections and the ability of local consumers to report violations via social media and a dedicated hotline, products sold at brick-and-mortar locations generally comply with these orders by translating their labels and menus into English.

Not so products sold online.

In the country’s top online shopping portals, the most egregious violators of local label-translation laws are large, multinational FMCG companies that sell products emanating from Indonesia, as well as a number of local traders that distribute goods from South Korea.

A law that requires the translation of labels before foreign products are even allowed to enter the country will certainly help address these violations.

As in the rest of the world, online sales in the Philippines skyrocketed during Covid. Conservative estimates put Philippine imports from South Korea at USD 9.63bn in 2021, roughly 30% higher than the prior year. Indonesian imports, meanwhile, grew 50% during the same period to USD 9bn.