General food law

Whether you work in a food business or you are a consumer interested in food law, there are general requirements, which are listed on this page.

This overview covers the main EC and domestic legislation on food imports and exports, safety, traceability, labelling and product withdrawals and recalls.

We have summarised the wording of the legislation referred to, so please use this as a general summary of food safety law, but don’t regard it as legal advice.

It is important to always check the exact wording of the legislation applicable to the circumstances you are dealing with.

The main food laws which apply to these policy areas

The General Food Law Regulation (EC) 178/2002 is directly applicable EU legislation and provides the general principles of food safety which include the requirement on food businesses to place safe food on the market, for traceability of food, for presentation of food, for the withdrawal or recall of unsafe food placed on the market and that food and feed imported into, and exported from, the EU shall comply with food law. See the guidance on General Food Law Regulation (EC) 178/2002.

The Food Safety Act 1990 (as amended) provides the framework for all food legislation in Britain – similar legislation applies in Northern Ireland. See the guidance for food businesses on the Food Safety Act 1990.

In Scotland and Wales, The General Food Regulations 2004 (as amended) provides for the enforcement (including imposing penalties) of certain provisions of Regulation (EC) 178/2002 and amended the Food Safety Act 1990 to bring it in line with Regulation (EC) 178/2002. Similar legislation applies in Northern Ireland.

In England, The Food Safety and Hygiene (England) Regulations 2013 (as amended) provides for the enforcement (including imposing penalties) of certain provisions of Regulation (EC) 178/2002.

Main food safety and consumer protection offences created by the Food Safety Act 1990

Section 7: rendering food injurious to health by:

  • adding an article or substance to the food
  • using an article or substance as an ingredient in the preparation of the food
  • abstracting any constituent from the food
  • subjecting the food to any process or treatment

with the intention that it shall be sold for human consumption.

Section 14: selling to the purchaser’s prejudice any food which is not of the nature or substance or quality demanded by the purchaser.

Section 15: falsely describing or presenting food.

Under section 20, if the commission of an offence is due to the act or default of another person, the other person is guilty of the offence.

Under section 21 in proceedings for an offence under the provisions of Part 2 of the Act (which includes the offences listed above), it is a defence for a food business operator to prove that he took all reasonable precautions and exercised due diligence to avoid the commission of the offence.

Main provisions of the General Food Law Regulation (EC) 178/2002 that apply to food business operators

Article 11 states that food imported into the European Union (EU) for placing on the market shall comply with the requirements of food law recognised by the EU, or if there is a specific agreement between the EU and the exporting country, those requirements.

Article 12 states that food exported (or re-exported) from the EU shall comply with the requirements of food law, unless the authorities of the importing country have requested otherwise, or it complies with the laws, regulations and other legal and administrative procedures of the importing country.

In the case of exporting or re-exporting food, provided the food is not injurious to health or unsafe, the competent authorities of the destination country must have expressly agreed for the food to be exported or re-exported, after having been fully informed as to why the food could not be placed on the market in the Community.

Where there is a bilateral agreement between the EU or one of its member states and a third country, food exported from the EU needs to comply with its provisions.

Article 14 states that food shall not be placed on the market if it is unsafe. Food is deemed to be unsafe if it is considered to be:

  • injurious to health
  • unfit for human consumption

The article also indicates what factors need to be taken into account when determining whether food is injurious to health or unfit.

Article 16 states that labelling, advertising and presentation, including the setting in which the food is displayed, of food shall not mislead consumers.

Article 18 requires food business operators to keep records of food, food substances and food-producing animals supplied to their business, and also other businesses to which their products have been supplied. In each case, the information shall be made available to competent authorities on demand.

Withdrawal, recall and notification
Article 19 requires food business operators to withdraw food which is not in compliance with food safety requirements, if it has left their control and to recall the food if has reached the consumer.

Withdrawal is when a food is removed from the market up to and including when it is sold to the consumer, recall is when customers are asked to return or destroy the product.

Food businesses must also notify the competent authorities (their local authority and the Food Standards Agency). Retailers and distributors must help with the withdrawal of unsafe food and pass on information necessary to trace it.

Where food business operators have placed a food on the market that is injurious to health, they must immediately notify the competent authorities. There are also similar provisions for animal feed.

Offences and penalties laid down by the General Food Regulations 2004

Regulation 4 creates criminal offences for breaches of Articles 12, 14(1), 16, 18(2) or (3) and 19 of the General Food Law Regulation (EC) 178/2002.

Regulation 5 lays down the penalties for the breaches of the articles listed above:

  • on conviction in a Crown Court, a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or both
  • on conviction in a Magistrates’ Court, a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or both

The defences under sections 20 and 21 of the Food Safety Act also apply to these regulations.

Food hygiene legislation

Food hygiene legislation is closely related to the legislation on the general requirements and principles of food law.

The legislation lays down the food hygiene rules for all food businesses, applying effective and proportionate controls throughout the food chain, from primary production to sale or supply to the food consumer.

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