Article - Consumer Law

Food Safety

Food, and its safety, affects consumers on a day to day basis.  Whether it be a purchase from the local supermarket or from a luxury store, all consumers expect food to be safe.  When it is not, there can be dramatic consequences.  The criminal law therefore regulates this area of law under the Food Safety Act 1990 (‘the 1990 Act’).  The consumer should remember, however, that a civil remedy for satisfactory quality or under the Consumer Protection Act 1987 can still be pursued.  It will, of course, help the consumer in any civil proceedings if a criminal conviction has already been secured.

The Offence

Section 1(1) of the 1990 Act gives the definition of “food”.  Section 1(2) gives examples: such as drinks, additives and chewing gum.  Under section 3, it is presumed that food is for sale for human consumption if the food is commonly sold for human consumption.

Food Injurious to Health

Section 7 of the 1990 Act creates an offence of rendering food injurious to health with the intent that it should be sold for human consumption.  This can occur in four ways:

  • by adding any article or substance to the food;

  • by using any article or substance as an ingredient in the preparation of the food;

  • by abstracting any constituent from the food; or

  • by subjecting the good or any other process or treatment.

Food which does not comply with Food Safety Requirements

Under section 8 of the 1990 Act an offence is committed if any person sells, offers to sell or advertises for human consumption any food which does not comply with the food safety requirements.

An offence is therefore committed if the food is:

  • injurious to health under section 7 of the 1990 Act;

  • unfit for human consumption; or

  • so contaminated that it would be reasonable to assume it is unfit for human consumption.

What Does Unfit for Human Consumption Mean?

Simply because the food is not hazardous to health will not mean that it is fit for human consumption.  For example, in David Grieg Limited v Goldfinch (1961) 105 S.J. 367 the defendant sold a pork pie which developed a black mould under the crust.  Fortunately, the black mould was harmless but the court decided that it was unfit for human consumption.  Similarly, if a consumer finds third party objects in food then a prosecution can be brought under section 8(2)(c) of the 1990 Act.  This happened in R v F & M Dobson (1995) 16 Cr. App. R. (S.) 957 where a consumer found a knife blade in chocolate.

Foods which mislead consumers

Sections 14 and 15 of the 1990 Act attempt to ensure that food is “of the appropriate nature, substance and quality”.  Under section 14 of the 1990 Act any seller who sells, to a buyer’s prejudice, any food which does not comply with this definition is guilty of an offence.  For example, in McDonald’s Hamburgers v Windle (1987) 151 J.P. 333 the buyer asked for a diet cola.  The seller sold the buyer a regular cola and, therefore, an offence was committed.

It can equally apply when food can only be sold in a certain way.  For example, food must be classed as mince when it contains a certain percentage of fat.  If the food is sold as meat when it should be classed as mince then an offence is committed.

Under section 15 of the 1990 Act a seller is guilty of an offence if it gives with any food sold a label which falsely describes the good or is likely to mislead as to the nature or substance or quality of the food.  This may therefore apply to a situation when a lollipop is described as “natural orange” when, in fact, it contains a number of additives.

Trading Standards’ Powers

Under section 9(1) of the 1990 Act an enforcement offer has the power, at all reasonable times, to inspect food intended for human consumption.  After the inspection, the enforcement offer can serve a notice preventing the food's sale, order the food's removal to a specified place or require the food to be taken before a magistrate to consider an order for its destruction.


Under section 21(1) of the 1990 Act a seller has a due diligence defence.  This is a defence common to many criminal prosecutions.  To be successful, the seller will need to show that it has took both all reasonable precautions and exercised due diligence to avoid committing an offence.  This may be difficult.


If you have any doubts concerning food bought from a business, you should contact your local Trading Standards Office.  You may also consider bringing a claim against the seller claiming the food was of unsatisfactory quality.  Clearly, if the food is unsafe then it should be unsatisfactory.  A criminal conviction will therefore protect the public and, in the future, allow you to bring a claim to recover the purchase price and any reasonably foreseeable consequental losses.

Article First Published: 1 June 2007


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