What is food safety law?
Legal requirements apply to the handling of food at various stages of the food production and sales process, from growth and manufacture to consumption. Food safety law covers a broad range of areas of this process, but the key requirement underlying it all is that food must not be provided if it is unsafe - it must be fit for human consumption and not injurious to health.
Safe food preparation and service
First and foremost, businesses that provide food must ensure that the food they provide is, in itself, safe.
This starts with ensuring that food doesn’t contain anything harmful. For example, food should not contain any unapproved additives (ie ingredients added to food to perform particular functions, for example, preservation) or additives that haven’t been approved for use in the particular food or concentration that you wish to use them in.
Food must also be cooked and prepared in a safe manner. For example, you must be careful to:
not cook foods too little or too much, if doing so may make them harmful
store food in safe conditions (eg chilled) and regularly monitor the condition of your storage appliances (eg fridges and chillers)
not include any ingredients that are inherently unsafe (eg certain chemicals)
The exact ways in which food should be safely prepared depend on the type of food and the business in question. For more information, read the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA’s) guidance on safe food.
Good hygiene practices are essential for keeping food safe. You should always handle food in accordance with procedures that minimise the risk of pathogens (eg harmful bacteria) coming into contact with the food. Poor hygiene practices can lead to, for example, illnesses being transmitted from food handlers to customers.
The core principles of food hygiene are sometimes referred to as the ‘four Cs’:
cleaning - you must adequately clean and, where necessary, disinfect your food preparation and services spaces in accordance with a suitable schedule
cooking - always cook food to appropriate temperatures and reheat food correctly (generally, food can only be reheated once. It should be recooked until it’s properly hot, rather than just warmed, as just warming food can promote bacterial growth)
chilling - correctly store and handle any food that needs to be chilled (eg cooked food or food with a use-by date). Generally, you must:
cover and store food that needs to be chilled in an appropriate fridge or freezer as soon as possible
only keep chilled foods outside of a fridge for a maximum of 4 hours - after this, it should be either put back in the fridge (if appropriate) or thrown away
store chilled food at 8ºC or colder, ideally below 5ºC. Regularly check your fridge temperatures to ensure they remain below these thresholds throughout the day
store frozen food at -18ºC or colder. Regularly check your freezer temperatures to ensure they remain below this threshold
defrost frozen food in the fridge where possible
cross-contamination (ie the accidental transfer of bacteria to food from surfaces, equipment, hands, or other food) - make sure you prevent cross-contamination of bacteria (eg from raw food or from people) to food by, for example:
washing hands regularly and properly
cleaning and disinfecting work surfaces when appropriate (eg between different prep tasks)
using different equipment when handling raw meats versus other foods, or being sure to wash equipment extremely well
It’s a good idea to ensure all or some of your staff members who handle food have had formal hygiene training and hold a food hygiene certificate, although this is not legally required for most businesses.
For more information, read the FSA’s guidance on starting a food business safely.
Remember that food safety and hygiene obligations apply throughout the food production and sales process, including during preparation, transport, and sale (eg display and service).
For food to be safe for consumption, consumers need to know what’s in it. Food labelling laws require businesses to provide certain information about what’s in a food product, either on a label or in another manner. Exactly what’s required depends on the type of food in question (eg prepacked food versus food prepared on site).
For more information, read Food labelling.
An allergen is any substance that may cause an allergic reaction in somebody (ie a disproportionate inflammatory response caused when someone’s immune system comes into contact with a substance, eg after it’s been ingested). Severe allergic reactions can be life-threatening (ie anaphylaxis).
The law on allergens in food has become stricter in the UK following the introduction of Natasha’s Law in 2021. This is the law largely responsible for the labelling requirements related to allergens outlined above. 14 common allergens receive special treatment under the law (eg they must be emphasised in food labelling), but it’s important to note that these are not the only things that can cause allergic reactions. Any substance, from the common to the obscure, may be an allergen for somebody. It’s important to always follow ingredient labelling rules and to know what’s in the food your business makes or handles.
It’s important to consider allergens in other areas of your food law compliance too. For example, by maintaining good hygiene practices and preventing cross-contamination. You should also make sure you always know everything that’s in your food, even when this doesn’t have to be included on labels (eg for made-to-order food items).
You must also consider even minor risks of cross-contamination when making certain claims. For example, if you are making products containing gluten and products without in the same kitchen at the same time, regardless of how careful you are, it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll be justified in making claims that the food without gluten is definitively ‘gluten free’ - remember that some people can be incredibly sensitive to certain allergens.
Advertising food products
Another realm of food law is the range of restrictions imposed on the advertisement of food products. Broadly, these include requirements that:
food is not advertised in a manner that is misleading (eg by suggesting that it does something that it doesn’t or that it contains something that it doesn’t)
HFSS (high in fat, salt or sugar) foods must be advertised in accordance with restrictions (eg you often cannot offer promotions based on increasing purchase volume and cannot advertise HFSS foods at certain times on TV or on on-demand streaming services)
For more general information on advertising your products, read Marketing and the law.
Food businesses must generally be registered with their local authority. Registration must usually be made at least 28 days before you start trading when you start or take over a food business. This requirement applies regardless of:
where you’re selling food from (eg from permanent premises, mobile premises, your home, or online)
what step of the food production chain you’re operating at (eg preparing, distributing, storing, or selling food)
whether you sell food or provide it for free
For more information, read Business licences.
Note that food business registration is free, generally cannot be refused, and can be done online.
Local authorities have the power to inspect a food business to ensure that their food, premises, and ways of work (eg hygiene procedures) lead to the business providing food that’s safe for consumers. The frequency of inspections tends to vary greatly depending on the level of risk associated with a food business (eg a seafood restaurant will likely be inspected far more frequently than a tourist attraction that sells a few packaged biscuits).
After an inspection has been carried out, enforcement action may be taken to address any issues (eg unsafe food may be seized, legal notices may be served requiring specific action, and prosecutions may be issued in serious cases).
Businesses will also be provided with a hygiene rating following an inspection, in line with the food hygiene rating scheme. This rating scheme gives food businesses a rating from 0 to 5 in recognition of their overall food hygiene standards at the time of inspection. Businesses in Wales must show their rating in a prominent place (eg on the front door or window). Businesses in England may choose to do this, but do not have to.
Health and safety in food businesses
Like any other business, a food business must follow health and safety laws in order to meet its duty to uphold the health and safety of its staff members and of others that come into contact with the business (eg customers).
This involves undertaking risk assessments to analyse the risks posed by a workplace and its activities and to make plans for their mitigation. Many food businesses will, by nature, need to take certain risks into account. For example, food preparation often involves working with sharp objects (eg knives), hot things (eg gas stoves), chemicals (eg for cleaning), and toxins (eg incorrectly prepared food), often in fast-paced and busy environments. Businesses should analyse and control (eg introduce measures to mitigate) these risks. For example, by providing staff training and safe equipment or by setting specific procedures for dangerous tasks.
Other food safety principles
The information above describes some key aspects of food safety law. However, it does not cover everything. In addition to the above, food businesses should abide by other laws that regulate food safety and laws that regulate businesses that serve consumers in general. These include the requirements:
that businesses report any food safety incidents (eg if a business realises that it has sold unsafe food)
of traceability - ie the requirement that food businesses keep records of food and food substances that they deal with, as well as of businesses to which they have supplied food and of food-producing animals that have been supplied to them
imposed on imports and exports of food into and out of Great Britain
that businesses withdraw or recall any food they’ve sold that is not safe
that businesses abide by consumer protection laws