This post details the Food Safety Act 1990 with advice for both employers and professionals. Anyone involved in the food industry, including manufacturing, logistics, preparation and catering, needs to understand and work to this UK legislation in order to stay legally compliant.
What is the Food Safety Act 1990?
The Food Safety Act is UK law first passed in 1990 and since updated periodically, which sets out the responsibilities of businesses who produce, handle and sell food products to ensure the safety of the consumer.
Since 1990, the Food Safety Act has been partly superseded by the General
Food Law Regulation (Regulation (EC) 178/2002) which was adopted in the UK as part of their EU membership, and came into force in 2005. The new regulations were enshrined in UK law in the Food Safety Act 1990 (Amendment) Regulations 2004.
It is important to note that this article should not be considered legal advice, and for detailed information about the Act or related issues a registered legal professional should be consulted.
Who does the Act apply to?
The Act applies to all businesses, regardless of size, which are involved in the production, preparation, handling or sale of food. Under the Act, distribution of food without actual payment, for example free meals in a workplace canteen, is still defined as a “sale”. The Act defines food as “any substance or product, whether processed, partially processed or unprocessed, intended to be, or reasonably expected to be ingested by humans.”
What does it mean for businesses?
In summary, the Act consists of three main areas in which businesses must comply. In each of these areas the Act brought into law an associated offence which carries penalties and sanctions for those businesses who contravene these regulations.
i. Production and handling of food
Businesses are required to ensure that when producing and handling food, that they do not add or remove anything which could damage the health of the consumer, and that they do not store or treat food in such a way that it would become harmful to the consumer.
This area of the Act addresses issues including maintenance of correct food hygiene, ensuring adequate storage conditions such as refrigeration or freezing, avoiding physical or bacterial contamination of food and providing staff with the correct equipment and training to ensure these needs are met.
Contravention of these requirements constitutes the offence of “Rendering food injurious to health”. An example would be a shop selling chicken sandwiches which have been contaminated with bacteria.
ii. The standard of food products
As well as addressing the most basic levels of safety, e.g. ensuring that the food they serve is not harmful to consumers, the Act also requires businesses to make sure that the standard of the food they serve meets the expectations of the consumer.
The required standards are laid out in the Act using the following terms:
“Nature” – For example, if a meat is sold is chicken, it must be chicken, not turkey.
“Substance” – For example, a bag of oats would not be expected to contain dead insects
“Quality” – For example, a packet of biscuits would be expected to be fresh, not stale
Contravention of these requirements constitutes the offence of “Selling food which is not of the nature or quality demanded.” An example in this case would be a supermarket selling beef burgers which were made with mostly beef fat rather than meat.
iii. The presentation and advertising of food
The final key area in which the Act governs food businesses is in the accuracy and transparency of the way in which they describe, advertise and market the food they serve.
This is designed to combat incorrect or incomplete descriptions of food products which may mislead the consumer, or potentially be harmful or dangerous, for example in the case of food allergens being mislabelled, or quantities of unhealthy ingredients being inaccurate.
This area of the Act covers issues such as labelling, presentation, packaging and information about ingredients, nutrients and additives.
Contravention of these requirements constitutes the offence of “Falsely or misleadingly describing or presenting food.” An example of this offence would be a cafe selling freshly squeezed orange juice that was actually made from orange concentrate.
Penalties and sanctions
As described in the section above, under the Food Safety Act 1990 there are three key offences:
- Rendering food injurious to health
- Selling food which is not of the nature or quality demanded
- Falsely or misleadingly describing or presenting food
The punishment for committing one or a combination of more than one of these offences is described in the Act as follows:
- Offences 1 and 2 attract a fine of up to £20,000 each time the offence is committed
- Offence 3 attracts a fine of up to £5,000 for each time the offence is committed
- For any of the offences, a sentence of up to 6 months imprisonment is also possible in addition to any fine
(The exception to the above is in Scotland, where the maximum punishment for any offence is up to a £10,000 fine and / or 12 months imprisonment)
Complying with the Act
In order to ensure that their business doesn’t fall foul of any of the regulations described above, and avoids the resulting penalties and sanctions, there are a few key areas of compliance to consider.
Workplace environment and cleanliness
Any food preparation environment must prioritise hygiene and cleanliness, as well as safe storage environments for food, e.g. correct refrigeration temperatures, or stock rotation times. Keeping these standards high involves a continual process of monitoring, auditing and improving. There is no specific system defined in the law to manage this, but whatever system is used, it must address each of the seven HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) principles which are laid out in the Act.
In summary, these are:
- Conduct a hazard analysis (identify food safety hazards)
- Identify critical control points (the stages at which a hazard can be prevented or eliminated)
- Establish critical limits for each critical control point (the maximum and minimum level to which a hazard must be controlled)
- Establish critical control monitoring requirements (the monitoring activities needed to ensure compliance with the procedure)
- Establish corrective actions (actions to be taken when monitoring indicates non-compliance)
- Establish procedures to ensure that the HACCP system works as intended (validate and periodically review points 1-6)
- Establish record keeping procedures (keep a written plan on points 1-6, and record monitoring activities and their findings)
For more detailed information on these points, visit the Food Standards Agency website here: https://www.food.gov.uk/business-industry/food-hygiene/haccp
Perhaps most importantly, employers are ultimately responsible for the conduct of their employees, so to ensure compliance with the Food Safety Act it is vital that employees are given the correct training. There is no formal requirement for which course is required, but the most widely regarded is the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) Food Handling qualification, which comes in three levels of varying complexity. Information on this course can be found here:
A good starting point for employers wanting to learn more about the Food Safety Act and its implications is the official page on the Food Standards Agency website, which includes a detailed PDF guide, and can be found here:
More general advice on food safety can be found at the government’s website here: