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; check the In-depth Guides to find out whether there are extra rules that apply to you.
Food hygiene and 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:
- 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.
Food safety: quality and 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.
Food safety: quality and 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.
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
- the net 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 (unless the product is a single ingredient and the name of the product is the ingredient); allergenic ingredients must be emphasised in some way (such as bolding) each time they appear in the list
- a quantitative declaration (QUID) of certain ingredients
- the name and address of the responsible food business operator
- traceability information such as a lot number (unless the best before/use-by date is sufficient for traceability purposes)
- any special storage conditions (if necessary)
- instructions for use or cooking (if necessary)
- origin marking (only if the customer would be misled as to the origin without it)
- a nutrition declaration
Best before, use by and 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, but they take responsibility for the quality of the food if they do so||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 mark relates to the safety of the food. It is an offence for shops to sell food after its 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. A sell by date cannot replace a best-before or use-by date. (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.
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)
Nutrition and 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.
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.
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
In-depth guidanceThis 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
When producers sell directly to the consumer there is a wide range of labelling requirements
If you manufacture, prepare or sell food you need to understand which ingredients may cause allergic reactions and how to make your customers aware that they are present in the food they are eating
The roles and responsibilities of authorised food officers, including taking of food samples
Labelling requirements for food producers that wish to make claims about their products
Recognise the importance of date marking of foodstuffs and when lot marking is necessary
If you supply food products you must ensure that certain compulsory information is given in English
The food-labelling essentials that a baker needs to know, including meat pies and sausage rolls
The food-labelling essentials that a butcher needs to know, including composition of meat products
The essentials of food labelling for restaurants, takeaways, etc, including some commonly misdescribed examples
The essentials of food labelling for a fishmonger, including legal names of species and use of the term smoked
The essentials of food labelling for the greengrocer, including the use of variety and organic
The Compulsory Beef Labelling Scheme seeks to protect against another BSE scare
If you supply food to the public you need to know what your obligations are regarding the labelling of GM foods
Labelling requirements for honey producers, including country of origin
The rules for the labelling and composition of jam, marmalade, mincemeat and other similar products
Specific labelling requirements for meat from pigs, sheep, goats and poultry
General labelling requirements for packaged food products
The requirements for the labelling of sweets, including the specific rules for chocolate
When it is permissible to use the term 'organic' in product descriptions
There are specific requirements for the marking of eggs for retail sales, including descriptions and size
Sandwiches must be labelled with certain food information, which will differ depending on how they are sold.
Labelling requirements for packaged food products, specifically relating to the ingredients list
Labelling requirements for packaged food products, specifically relating to the nutrition declaration
Labelling requirements for packaged food products, specifically relating to the name of the product
Labelling requirements for packaged food products, specifically relating to the quantitative ingredient declaration
Non-prepacked foods (those that are sold loose, prepacked for direct sale, or packaged at the request of the consumer) have fewer labelling requirements than those that are prepacked
Products containing alcohol – particularly spirit drinks – have specific labelling and composition requirements
Large retailers are required to charge for most new single-use carrier bags they supply
Requirements for the sale of alcohol in pubs, restaurants, etc
Surplus food of animal origin must be disposed of safely to control the risk of disease to both animals and humans
Failure to adopt basic food hygiene procedures can lead to contamination or damage
How the law applies to products sold in these types of shop, including food supplements, cosmetics, and products of animal origin
Understand what is required of you if import feed or food from outside the UK
An overview of 'average quantity' and what is required of packers or importers of packaged products
The three rules of packing to the average-weight system for small bakers
Requirements for butchers regarding products sold loose and/or prepacked
Requirements for fishmongers regarding products sold loose and/or prepacked
Requirements for greengrocers regarding products sold loose and/or prepacked
In order to keep food safe there are restrictions on the type of packaging that can be used 'for food contact'
Businesses who sell products in containers provided by consumers are subject to a variety of legal requirements
Novel foods explained, including restrictions on their use and an explanation of the legal status of foods containing CBD and the permitted uses of hemp
Guidance for businesses - such as supermarkets, brewers, distillers, biofuel manufacturers, dairies and food manufacturers - that supply co-products and surplus foods for animal feed