Shopping and food safety
When you order food by mail or online, you should be aware of food hygiene standards and make sure the food is safe to eat. Food hygiene is also important when buying packaged or unpackaged food in shops and supermarkets.
When you're shopping for food, it's important to:
- notice overloaded or overly-warm chilled or frozen food cabinets
- check shop staff wash their hands carefully between handling raw and cooked foods
- check shop staff clean or change their utensils between handling raw and cooked foods
- report unhygienic practices to the shop management or environmental health department in the local council
To make sure the food you buy is safe:
- don't buy any packets that have been damaged or opened
- don't buy food from counters where cooked and raw meat is not separated
- put chilled and frozen food into the right storage as soon as possible to avoid defrosting and spoilage
Your rights when buying food online
When you buy food online in the UK, the business must:
- give you clear information about the goods or services offered
- send you confirmation after you buy
- give you a cooling-off period of seven working days to cancel your order, unless you ordered something perishable
If you buy products from businesses in other European Union (EU) countries, your rights are similar to your rights in the UK. Outside the EU, your rights will vary in different countries.
Complaints about buying food
When a supermarket delivers food you didn't order
If you order a product that isn't available, the supermarket might substitute another product. Before you order, check the supermarket's policy on substitutions.
When you order goods but you're unhappy with the service
To complain, you should write to the business and give them a chance to put it right. When you write to complain you should include:
- date of advertisement, catalogue or website information where you found out about the product
- date you ordered
- information about what you ordered
- amount you paid
- how you paid
- any reference numbers, such as order or customer number
- reason for complaint
- any other relevant information
- how you want them to resolve the situation
Local trading standards services have powers under the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 to apply for an injunction against any person or business that seems to have broken the regulations. They must investigate any complaint about breaking the regulations.
If your complaint is about food safety or labelling issues and you are not satisfied with the response you get, you could contact the local council where the company is based.
Complaining about advertising for food
If you think advertising about food is misleading, contact the environmental health office in the local council where the business is based.
Advertising rules vary according to the country where the business is based. Claims about products could be less reliable outside the European Union (EU).
Packaging and delivery
Ordering meat and dairy products from abroad
You can order meat and dairy products within the EU. From countries outside the EU, you shouldn't order meat and dairy products, including:
- canned meat
- dried meat
Getting food delivered by post or courier
If foods that need refrigerating (such as fish, meat products, cooked foods, many dairy products and ready-prepared salads) are sent by post or courier, they should be delivered as quickly as possible, ideally overnight, and they should be kept cool until delivery.
When you place an order, make sure you know when to expect delivery. If foods that need refrigerating are delivered late, this might mean they haven't been kept cool enough. For this reason, it's better not to accept food after the intended delivery time printed on the package.
How food should be packaged if it's sent by post
Foods that need refrigerating (such as fish, meat products, cooked foods, many dairy products and ready-prepared salads) must be kept cool while they're being transported. Sometimes they'll be packed in an insulated box with a coolant gel, or in a cool bag.
If you order food that needs refrigerating and it will be travelling a long distance, check with the supplier what they do to keep it cool until delivery.
Products that are vacuum-packed, such as smoked fish, should still be kept cool.
When food packaging is damaged
Food should be sent in packaging that is strong and intact. If a pack is open, damaged or leaking, it's best not to eat the food. You might be able to reject the delivery. Contact the supplier to tell them.
Should food orders from a supermarket be delivered in a refrigerated van
Often your shopping will be delivered in a refrigerated van and this is good practice, because it's an effective way to keep food cool. But it isn't always essential for food to be refrigerated while it's being transported, providing that it's delivered quickly. If you're concerned about the way your food is delivered, contact the supermarket.
What to do if foods that need refrigerating are warm when delivered
If foods that need refrigerating aren't kept cool enough during delivery, it could make you ill. If this type of food arrives and it isn't cold, you shouldn't eat it.
You might be able to reject the delivery, depending on the terms of your contract with the supplier. Before you order, you should check the food company's delivery policy.
Food safety law
NI food hygiene and safety law applies when food is sold to customers in Northern Ireland.
This protects consumers from buying food unfit for eating through poor hygiene or safety standards.
Under food safety law, businesses must make sure that all food and feed placed on the market is safe, that its quality is what consumers would expect and that it is not labelled in a false or misleading way.
Food safety officers carry out inspections to check that food is stored and prepared safely and check that food meets safety, composition and nutrition labelling standards (for example, labelling of allergens, use by dates, nutritional and compositional information).
Labelling requirements for food products marketed within NI
Generally, food products must be labelled in a way that's easy to understand, with print that's clear enough to read.
All prepacked food must have a food label that includes certain information. All food is subject to general food labelling requirements and food placed on the market in Northern Ireland must follow those rules with respect to labelling.
Any labelling provided must be accurate and not misleading. The label must include:
- name of the food
- list of ingredients
- allergen Information
- Quantitative declaration of ingredients (QUID)
- net quantity
- 'use by' or 'best before' date
- any special instructions about how to store or use the product
- name and address of the manufacturer
- country of origin or place of provenance
- preparation instructions
- alcoholic strength by volume for beverages containing more that 1.2 per cent volume of alcohol
- nutritional declaration
Further information is available at:
Providing labelling information online or in a catalogue
There's no legal requirement to give labelling information online or in a catalogue - this will depend on the policy of the supplier.
Difference between 'Use by' and 'Best before' dates
To read about 'use by' and 'best before' dates, go to:
Selling on food products you bought from home
If you buy food online or by mail order, you can sell this food to other people if the products meet all UK food law for labelling and food hygiene.
If you're planning to sell food, you may need to comply with certain food law requirements, such as registering your business with your local council. If you're not sure, ask the council for advice. If food products don't meet UK law, it could be an offence to sell them or give them away.