Food law and enforcement
An introduction for food business operators to food law and food hygiene laws, and how they are enforced
Food businesses must comply with general food law and food hygiene legislation. This applies to all food business operators, including:
When new food regulations are introduced, the government takes steps to ensure they are suitable and fair. It aims to protect public health and ensure food safety while at the same time reducing the burden for businesses.
Both central and local government bodies enforce food safety and food standards regulations depending on the type of premises involved.
This guide provides an overview of food regulation and legislation. It details the food law enforcement agencies and how they carry out enforcement of food laws. This guide also explains food crime and whistleblowing in the food industry.
You should note that there are many other more specific pieces of legislation regarding food. These are covered in other nibusinessinfo.co.uk and Food Standards Agency (FSA) guides. This guide covers general food law and food hygiene because of their relevance to all food businesses.
Overview of food regulation and legislation
An overview of the laws, regulations, codes of practice and guidance for running a food business
There are a number of laws, codes of practice and guidance documents that regulate foodstuffs. These cover all parts of the food production and distribution chain, including:
- packaging and labelling
- retailing and catering
The Food Standards Act 1999
The Food Standards Act gives the Food Standards Agency (FSA) its functions and powers. The FSA aims to protect public health and consumers' interests. They also aim to ensure food businesses are not burdened by excessive or unclear regulations.
General food law
The main pieces of UK and European general food legislation are:
- the Food Safety (Northern Ireland) Order (PDF, 301K), which provides the framework for food legislation in Northern Ireland and creates offences in relation to safety, quality and labelling
- the General Food Law Regulation (EC), which creates general principles and requirements of food law
- the Food Hygiene Regulations (Northern Ireland)
- EU Food Hygiene Regulations
- The European Communities Act, under which European food law is transposed into national legislation
- Feed Hygiene Regulations which introduce hygiene requirements for those food businesses placing food materials into animal feed
- Food Information for Consumers regulations
The EU law that continues to apply to Northern Ireland after 1 January 2021 is specified in Annex II to the Northern Ireland Protocol. Food and feed products produced in NI or placed on the NI market need to comply with EU food law. See the latest EU Exit guidance for the food and drink sector.
Responsibilities for food businesses
The main responsibilities for food businesses under the Food Safety (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 are:
- to ensure you do not include anything in food, remove anything from food, or treat food in any way that would damage the health of people eating it
- to ensure that the food you serve or sell is of the nature, substance or quality consumers would expect
- to ensure that food is labelled, advertised and presented in a way that is not false or misleading
The main responsibilities for food businesses under the General Food Law Regulation are:
- to ensure food is not unsafe (harmful to health or unfit for humans to eat)
- to ensure that labelling, advertising and presentation of food does not mislead consumers
- to be able to identify your suppliers - and the businesses you have supplied to - and produce this information on demand, ie traceability
- to withdraw unsafe food from the market and inform the authorities of this
Where the unsafe food may have reached the consumer, the food business operator must inform the consumers of the reason for the withdrawal and, if necessary, recall from consumers unsafe food already supplied to them when other measures are not sufficient to achieve a high level of health protection.
Food hygiene legislation affects all food businesses. Core European Union (EU) food hygiene regulations cover:
- hygiene of foodstuffs and general hygiene requirements for all food businesses
- food businesses dealing with products of animal origin
- products of animal origin intended for human consumption
- verification of compliance with feed and food law, animal health and animal welfare
Animal feed regulations
The main responsibilities for food businesses (placing food materials into the feed chain) under regulation on feed hygiene are:
- to ensure feed is produced according to a permanent written procedure based on Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles
- to provide materials intended for use in animal feed to registered feed business operators
- to be registered as a feed business operator
Food law enforcement agencies
How central government enforcement agencies work with local councils to enforce food laws and regulations
In the UK, day-to-day responsibility for enforcing food controls is divided between central and local government.
The central food law enforcement authorities in the UK are:
- the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland
- Food Standards Scotland in Scotland
- the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and its agencies
- devolved agriculture and rural affairs departments, including Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) in Northern Ireland
Most food law is enforced by local councils throughout the UK. The FSA supervises local council enforcement and works with local enforcement officers to make sure food law is applied throughout the food chain.
Food law enforcement in Northern Ireland
- DAERA Agri-food Inspection Branch enforces food law for primary producers (ie farmers - except dairy and egg producers)
- local authorities enforce food law for food businesses like cafes, restaurants and food shops
- the Veterinary Public Health Unit of DAERA enforce meat inspection for meat establishments
- the DAERA Agri-food Inspection Branch in Northern Ireland enforces rules for milk and milk products for dairy producers
- DAERA Agri-food Inspection Branch is responsible for enforcement of egg packers complying with hygiene regulations for egg producers
- local food authorities are responsible for enforcement in other food businesses that produce products of animal origin, such as fisheries businesses
Enforcement of food laws
The Framework Agreement outlines the remit of the Food Standards Agency to supervise and monitor local authority enforcement
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) works with local council environmental health officers and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) to make sure that food and animal feed law is applied across the entire food chain. The way they work together is set out in the Framework Agreement.
The Framework Agreement
The Framework Agreement gives the FSA the means to use its powers to influence and oversee local council enforcement. The agreement applies to local enforcement of all food laws and includes the latest guidance and standards on food law enforcement. It provides for:
- local service plans to increase transparency of local enforcement services
- agreed food law enforcement standards for local authorities
- enhanced data monitoring
- an audit scheme to identify possible improvements
Powers of local enforcement officers
Local enforcement officers can:
- inspect any stage of the food production, manufacturing, distribution and retail process
- enter premises, seize and detain foods
- take samples of food for testing to ensure compliance with food legislation
- take action against a food business operator who does not comply with food law
Local authorities are responsible for investigating any food complaints that consumers make to them. Their enforcement officers can issue:
- improvement notices
- remedial action notices
- prohibition notices
They will also consider starting prosecution proceedings in serious cases. The courts can impose heavy penalties for not complying with food laws, including closing the business if conditions are particularly bad.
Food Law Code of Practice
How food codes of practice regulate the way local councils apply food legislation
The Food Law Code of Practice for Northern Ireland sets out the way in which local authorities should enforce food law. It also provides guidance on how they should work with food business operators.
Local authorities (usually referred to as district councils in Northern Ireland) must comply with the instructions included in the code of practice when they enforce food law. They must follow and implement all the provisions of the code that apply to them.
The code of practice is revised and updated from time to time to:
- reduce the paperwork burden on business and on local councils
- update it with changes in legislation
- maintain standards of public health and consumer protection
Food Law Practice Guidance
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) issues Food Law Practice guidance. This gives advice and practical guidance to enforcement officers on how best to apply the code of practice. The guidance is not legally binding.
Practice guidance covers:
- administrative matters, such as the qualifications and experience of officers
- general enforcement matters, including prohibition and improvement notices
- guidance on monitoring compliance with food laws and carrying out inspections
- guidance relating to establishments dealing with specific products, such as fresh meat or shellfish
Food hygiene legislation
An outline of the food hygiene regulations that apply to all food businesses throughout the whole food chain
All food businesses need to follow strict food hygiene rules. How they affect you depends on the size and type of your business.
Food premises registration
You must register any premises you use for your food business with your local council. In some cases you must have them approved. Premises that may have to be approved include any used for handling:
- meat and meat products
- eggs and egg products
- milk and dairy products
- fish and fish products
Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP)
All food businesses, except primary producers, are required to have in place food safety procedures based on the HACCP principles. It is an globally recognised and recommended system of food safety management and focuses on finding the 'critical points' in a process where there is a risk of food safety problems or hazards. It also suggests ways of putting steps in place to prevent things going wrong.
The law requires food business operators to produce food that's safe to eat. They must also be able to show and prove how they ensure food safety. However, the procedures can be different depending on the size of your business and its activities.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) publishes guidance to help caterers implement food safety management procedures based on HACCP. Your local council environmental health service can also advise you.
Food hygiene training and supervision
You must ensure that anyone who handles food is properly supervised, instructed and/or trained in food hygiene to a level to match their work activity. Food handlers don't always have to go on formal training courses or get a qualification. They can get the skills they need through on-the-job training, self-study or previous experience.
Microbiological criteria for foodstuffs
Microbiological criteria complement food hygiene legislation and apply to all food businesses involved in the production and handling of food. The regulation is flexible in its approach, in that sampling and testing plans should be based on risk (for example reflecting the size and type of business).
Microbiological criteria can be used by the food business operator to validate and verify their food safety management procedures. Food business operators can also use them when assessing the acceptability of foodstuffs or their manufacturing, handling and distribution processes.
Contact your local council environmental health service if you have any questions about how the regulations apply to your business.
Whistleblowing in the food industry
How whistleblowers are protected from victimisation by their employer if they make a qualifying disclosure
The Public Interest Disclosure Act protects workers from unfair treatment or victimisation by their employer if they report wrongdoing in the workplace - known as whistleblowing. Workers in the food industry can report any wrongdoing in confidence. They are protected by the act if their disclosure is a 'qualifying disclosure'.
Qualifying disclosures for whistleblowing
A disclosure is a qualifying disclosure for whistleblowing if the worker reasonably believes that one or more of the following is happening now, took place in the past, or is likely to happen in the future:
- a criminal offence
- the breach of a legal obligation
- a miscarriage of justice
- a danger to the health and safety of any individual
- damage to the environment
- a deliberate attempt to cover up any one of the above
Qualifying disclosures to the Food Standards Agency (FSA)
A qualifying disclosure to the FSA is a protected disclosure provided the worker makes the disclosure in good faith and reasonably believes that:
- the failure they are reporting may affect the health of any member of the public if they consume food that is affected - or if it concerns the protection of consumers' interests in relation to food
- the information disclosed and any allegation contained in it are substantially true
The FSA will make every effort to protect the identity of the whistleblower and to make sure they don't suffer as a result of making a public interest disclosure.
Making a disclosure
If you work in the food industry you may want to blow the whistle in the public interest on wrongdoing where you work. The FSA's policy on whistleblowing explains how you will be protected from detrimental treatment or victimisation by your employer under the Public Interest Disclosures Act.
Whistleblowers can make a disclosure by:
- using the 'reporting a food crime' online form
- by contacting the FSA on Tel 028 9041 7700 and asking to speak with the Food Fraud Liaison Officer
Other ways to make a disclosure
The whistleblowing charity Protect provides free confidential advice to workers who have concerns about wrongdoing in the workplace.
Types of food crime including theft, adulteration and document fraud and how to report a food crime confidentially
Food crime is serious fraud that impacts the safety or the authenticity of food, drink or animal feed. It can be seriously harmful to consumers, food businesses and the wider food industry.
The Food Standard Agency's National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) works to prevent, detect and investigate food crime across the UK.
Types of food crimes
The NFCU focuses its work on seven types of food crime:
- theft - dishonestly obtaining food, drink or feed products to profit from their use or sale
- unlawful processing - slaughtering or preparing meat and related products in unapproved premises or using unauthorised techniques
- waste diversion - illegally diverting food, drink or feed meant for disposal, back into the supply chain
- adulteration - including a foreign substance which is not on the product's label to lower costs or fake a higher quality
- substitution - replacing a food or ingredient with another substance that is similar but inferior
- misrepresentation - marketing or labelling a product to wrongly portray its quality, safety, origin or freshness
- document fraud - making, using and possessing false documents with the intent to sell or market a fraudulent or substandard product
Preventing food crime
Food crime can occur in various ways. It can range from isolated acts of dishonesty by individual offenders to organised illegal activity co-ordinated by criminal networks.
Food crime can be reduced by denying offenders the means to commit offences, or by reducing the likelihood of individuals and groups becoming offenders in the first place.
The NFCU works with the food industry to ensure that businesses are well-informed of food crime risks and are capable of implementing measures to protect themselves from food crime.
Ensuring the food production, food manufacturing and retail sectors are hostile environments to individuals or groups intent on offending is key to preventing food crime.
Reporting food crime
Members of the public and those working in the food and drink sector can speak up about food crime through Food Crime Confidential.
Suspicions or information about food crime in Northern Ireland should be reported to FSA by emailing email@example.com or by contacting FSA on Tel 028 9041 7700 and asking to speak with the Food Fraud Liaison Officer.
Instances where there is no deliberate dishonesty or intention to deceive should instead be reported to the relevant local authority.
Food Fraud Resilience Self-Assessment tool
The NFCU has developed a food fraud resilience self-assessment tool to support businesses in developing and implementing their counter-fraud strategy. The self-assessment tool covers different areas that businesses will need to be aware of so that they can better identify and address process issues.