In the guide

The law sets out rules that cover the preparation, composition and labelling of food supplied for human consumption

In broad terms:

  • the quality must meet the expectations of the consumer
  • it must be as described and not presented in a way that misleads the consumer
  • nothing may be added or removed that would make it harmful to health 

And the rules covering food safety can be divided into two broad areas:

  • the preparation of a product (for example, hygiene)
  • the finished product (such as labelling and presentation) 

If you prepare, pack or sell certain specific food products there will be additional regulations that apply; check the In-depth Guides to find out whether there are extra rules that cover you.

Note
There are laws that cover the weighing and measuring of foods. Make sure you check the 'Weights & measures' Quick Guide or you can find detailed information in the In-depth Guides under 'Other' below

Food hygiene & safety

Food businesses and handlers must ensure that their practices minimise the risk of harm to the consumer.

Millions of people in the UK are affected by food poisoning each year, so food hygiene is a key priority if you prepare or handle food. There are a number of key risks, including illness or death from food poisoning, increased consumer complaints, loss of reputation, legal action and fines.

There are seven issues that must be considered by businesses that prepare and handle food:

  • contamination
  • temperature controls
  • storage and preservation
  • personal hygiene
  • pest control
  • cleaning and disinfection
  • food safety management

This area is covered by environmental health rather than trading standards, and is therefore not covered on the site. Contact your local environmental health service for advice on these issues.

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Food safety: quality & composition

There are rules that cover the make-up of a range of foods that could be high risk if lower-quality ingredients or products have been used. These foodstuffs include bottled mineral water, jams and meat products.

The composition and labelling requirements for such high-risk foods are covered in regulations that are designed to protect consumers from illegal changes to foods. You can find information on these regulations and who they apply to in the In-depth Guides.

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Food safety: quality & labelling

The law sets out what is required to be shown on food packaging. This is to allow the consumer to make an informed choice.

Prepacked or non-prepacked? It's an important question
Prepacked foods are supplied to you already packaged. Non-prepacked foods are those that are sold unwrapped - for example, in restaurants, bakeries, deli counters or salad bars. Foods may also be sold 'prepacked for direct sale'. This is where the foods are wrapped on the same premises as they are sold, such as meat pies or sandwiches packed on site
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Prepacked food

If you sell food that is prepacked you must give the following information:

  • the name of the food
  • a best-before or use-by date
  • quantity
  • any required warnings - for example, if food contains aspartame the following wording must be given: 'Contains a source of phenylalanine'
  • a list of ingredients (if there are two or more)
  • whether the food contains any of the 14 specified allergens
  • the name and address of the responsible food business operator
  • the lot number (or use-by date if you wish)
  • any special storage conditions
  • instructions for use or cooking, if necessary
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Best before, use by & sell by

Best before Use by Sell by
For most foods, the 'best before' date mark is appropriate. It relates to the quality of the food and is an indication of the period for which a food can reasonably be expected to retain its optimal condition. Retailers can sell food after the best-before date provided the food is safe to eat. For foods that are highly perishable 'use by' is the required form of date mark. These foods present a microbiological risk to the consumer if sold after the indicated date, and so this relates to the safety of the food. It is an offence for shops to sell food that is after the use-by date. Products may be labelled with 'sell by' and 'display until' dates, but these are not required by law and are used mainly for stock control purposes within business premises. (There are different rules for eggs.)

There are other special rules for subjects such as the country of origin, and treatments such as genetically modified (GM) food. Again, see the In-depth Guides below if you are in any doubt about the laws that apply to you.

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Non-prepacked food

If you sell food loose - or package it for sale - in your shop or you run a catering business, the rules are different. You only need to show:

  • the name of the food
  • if any ingredients have been irradiated
  • if any ingredients have come from GM sources
  • certain warnings
  • allergen information (or a notice advising that this is available on request)
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Nutrition & health claims

There are laws governing what claims the food label may make about the nutritional properties of the food - for example, 'low fat' - and/or the potential health benefits consuming the food may have.

It is illegal for the food (or any advertising for the food) to make a claim that consuming it can treat or be a remedy for cancer, or give any advice in connection with the treatment of cancer.

In Scotland, food labelling laws are not generally enforced by the trading standards service, but rather by environmental health. As such, there are fewer In-depth Guides on food for Scotland than there are for England and Wales

For more detailed information please see the In-depth Guides below. Once you've finished, make sure you look at the full range of Quick Guides to see whether there are any other areas of law that affect your business.

Before you start
Make sure you choose your location using the drop-down list at the top of the page. The In-depth Guides provide country-specific information as some laws are different in England, Scotland and Wales, and some are enforced differently
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In-depth guidance

This is a general guide and you may well need to know more; take a look below where we've listed our In-depth Guides on specific topics related to food and drink

General

Disposal of surplus food

Surplus food of animal origin must be disposed of safely to control the risk of disease to both animals and humans

Egg producers selling directly to consumers

When producers sell directly to the consumer there is a wide range of labelling requirements

Food allergens & intolerance

If you sell or prepare food you need to know which foods are specified as allergens

Food sampling by authorised officers

The roles and responsibilities of authorised food officers, including taking of food samples

Genetically modified foods: Q&A

If you supply food to the public you need to know what your obligations are regarding genetically modified organisms

Composition

Colours in food

If you sell or supply food you need to give certain information about colours in foodstuffs

Composition of meat products

The difference between meat and meat products; and what is meant by a reserved description

Specified allergenic ingredients: Q&A

Prepacked foodstuffs must identify certain allergens on the label; there are 14 listed allergens, including fish and peanuts

Labelling

Date & lot marking of prepacked food

Recognise the importance of date marking of foodstuffs and when lot marking is necessary

Food labelled in a foreign language

If you supply food products you must ensure that certain compulsory information is given in English

Food labelling for bakers

The food-labelling essentials that a baker needs to know, including meat pies and sausage rolls

Food labelling for butchers

The food-labelling essentials that a butcher needs to know, including composition of meat products

Food labelling for caterers

The essentials of food labelling for restaurants, takeaways, etc, including some commonly misdescribed examples

Food labelling for fishmongers

The essentials of food labelling for a fishmonger, including legal names of species and use of the term smoked

Food labelling for greengrocers

The essentials of food labelling for the greengrocer, including the use of variety and organic

Labelling of beef

The EU Compulsory Beef Labelling Scheme seeks to protect against another BSE scare

Labelling of GM foods

If you supply food to the public you need to know what your obligations are regarding the labelling of GM foods

Labelling of honey

Labelling requirements for honey producers, including country of origin

Labelling of jam & similar products

The rules for the labelling and composition of jam, marmalade, mincemeat and other similar products

Labelling of poultry & other meats

Specific labelling requirements for meat from pigs, sheep, goats and poultry

Labelling of prepacked foods

Labelling requirements for packaged food products, including claims and nutritional labelling

Labelling of sweets

The requirements for the labelling of sweets, including the specific rules for chocolate

Labelling & describing organic food

When it is permissible to use the term 'organic' in product descriptions

Retail sale & labelling of eggs

There are specific requirements for the marking of eggs for retail sales, including descriptions and size

Sandwich labelling

Sandwiches must be labelled with certain information; however, this differs depending on how they are sold

Other

Single-use carrier bags

Large retailers are required to charge for most new single-use carrier bags they supply

The sale of alcohol in licensed premises

Requirements for the sale of alcohol in pubs, restaurants, etc

Alcohol

A guide to ensuring that underage sales of alcohol do not take place, and the implications if a sale is made

Food hygiene for farmers & growers

Failure to adopt basic food hygiene procedures can lead to contamination or damage

Herbal medicine & health food shops

How the law applies to products sold in these types of shop, including food supplements, cosmetics, and products of animal origin

Imported feed & food controls

Understand what is required of you if import feed or food from outside the UK

Packaged goods: average quantity

An overview of 'average quantity' and what is required of packers or importers of packaged products

Small bakers & average weight

The three rules of packing to the average-weight system for small bakers

Weights & measures for butchers

Requirements for butchers regarding products sold loose and/or prepacked

Weights & measures for fishmongers

Requirements for fishmongers regarding products sold loose and/or prepacked

Weights & measures for greengrocers

Requirements for greengrocers regarding products sold loose and/or prepacked

Food contact materials

In order to keep food safe there are restrictions on the type of packaging that can be used 'for food contact'

Feedback

Consumer enquiries from England, Scotland and Wales are handled by the Citizens Advice Consumer Service who can be contacted by telephone on 03454 04 05 06. Consumer enquiries in Northern Ireland are handled by ConsumerLine who can be contacted by telephone on 0300 1236262. Call charges may vary.

Business enquiries are dealt with by your local council. Use the Chartered Trading Standards Institute's postcode finder to locate your local trading standards team.