A succession of food safety scares has rocked Europe in recent years - including concerns over genetically modified foods, BSE and Sudan I.

In the current climate consumers are increasinglywise to their rights and expect the highest levels of safety in terms of the food and beverages that they consume. The food safety regulatory regime is intended to ensure that such standards aremaintained and it sets out broad obligations on producers, processors and distributors operatingwithin the sector.

The Food Safety Regulatory Framework

The regulatory framework is comprised of a number of pieces of UK and European legislation: 

  • The Food Safety Act 1990; 
  • EC Regulation 178/2002; 
  • The General Food Regulations 2004; and 
  • The General Product Safety Regulations 2005.

Under the Food Safety Act 1990 it is an offence to render food injurious to health, or to sell food not complying with food safety requirements. The Act also empowers the authorised officers of the relevant food authority to inspect and seize suspected goods, and further, to serve Improvement Notices and Prohibition Notices where necessary.

The EC Regulation deals with the obligations placed upon a food business in terms of food safety. A “food business” is an entity which carries out any of the activities related to any stage of production, processing and distribution. The EC Regulation sets out the food safety requirements, details the responsibilities of food business operators and deals with the traceability of food. It also provides for the establishment of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) which was set up in January 2002, following a series of food crises in the late 1990s, as an independent source of scientific advice and communication on food safety matters affecting Europe.

TheGeneral Food Regulations 2004 set out various criminal sanctions if the obligations under the ECRegulation are breached and amends the 1990 Act to bring it into linewith the ECRegulation. The General Product Safety Regulations 2005 are general regulations applying to all products (in so far as there is no sector-specific regulation) and provides food authorities with the power of compulsory recall. Compulsory recall is a power of last resort as in practicemost businesses are likely to agree a voluntary recall to protect their brand.

Obligations on a food business

Specified stepsmust be taken by a food business operator in the UK if it considers or has reason to believe that food which has been imported, produced, processed,manufactured or distributed is not in compliance with the food safety requirements. The food businessmust:

(1) immediately initiate procedures to withdraw food fromthemarket;

(2) informthe competent authorities, namely the local authority and the UK Food Standards Agency, and notify themof the action taken to prevent risks to the final consumer; and

(3) if the product has reached the consumer, the food businessmust effectively and accurately informthe consumer of the reason for the withdrawal. This can be by advertising in a newspaper, placing notices at points of sale, websites or information telephone lines.

Failure to comply with these obligations is a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to £2,000 in theMagistrates Court or an unlimited fine in the Crown Court.

Food Standards Agency

The Food Standards Agency (the “Agency”) is an independent Government department which was established in 2000 to protect the public’s health and consumer interests in relation to food.

Once a food safety incident notification is received by the Agency, it will carry out a risk-assessment to determine the potential scale, extent and severity of the risk to health. The food law Code of Practice (available on the Agency website) details the considerations which the Agencymust take into account in conducting this assessment.

As part of the risk assessment process, the Agency will liaise with the relevant local authorities, industry, and any other government departments and agencies to help formulate a risk management strategy. This will provide for how the risk should bemanaged, and if necessary, communicated.

There are a number of actions that the Agencymay take to protect food safety and consumers, including:

(1) food alerts: these are issued electronically by the Agency to alert local authorities and to issue instructions for enforcement action where necessary;

(2) notification to ECMember States via the Rapid Alert Systemfor Food and Feed (RASFF): The RASFF network comprises theMember States of the European Union, the European Commission in amanagement capacity, and the EFSA. The Agency uses the RASFF systemto informthe Commission, which in turn notifies the EFSA and otherMember States where the unsafe food has been distributed within the EU;

(3) publication of guidance or advice;

(4) agreement of voluntary restrictions;

(5) imposition of statutory restrictions; and/or

(6) sampling and analysis in respect of the particular food item.

Food safety alerts

There are two types of food safety alerts issued by the Agency: (1) food alerts: for action; and (2) food alerts: for information. The alerts are published on the Agency website and it is also possible to arrange to receive automatic notifications of new Alerts directly by mobile phone. Inmany cases a food safety alert will be issued in conjunction with a product withdrawal or recall by amanufacturer, distributor or retailer.

According to the Agency’s first Annual Report of Incidents published inMay this year, 81 food alerts were issued by the Agency during the course of 2006. Recent examples in October 2007 include alerts in connection with the withdrawal of certain batches of lambmeat and offal due to possible presence of veterinarymedicine residues, and the recall of certain batches of flavoured still water due to possiblemould contamination.