Shopping and food safety

Some safety tips for when you're out shopping for food or if you're ordering food by mail order or online. It's not just at home that you should be conscious of sound food hygiene. You can apply the same principles when you're out shopping for food.

Shopping safely

The safety issues to look out for when you're shopping for food.

Do

  • do beware of overloaded or overly-warm chilled or frozen food cabinets
  • do watch to see that the shop assistant washes his or her hands carefully between handling raw and cooked foods - it is also important that they clean or change their utensils between handling raw and cooked foods
  • do report any unhygienic practices to the shop management or to your local environmental health department

Don't

  • 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
  • don't delay in getting all chilled and frozen purchases home and into the correct storage as soon as possible to avoid defrosting and spoilage

Buying food online?

More and more people are ordering food from home, whether specialist or luxury products or day-to-day groceries. Check out your rights and find out what the law says.

Your rights

You have the right to expect various things when ordering food from a business in the UK. For example, the business must:

  • give you clear information about the goods or services offered
  • send you confirmation after a purchase
  • give you a cooling-off period of seven working days to cancel your order, unless you have ordered something perishable

If you buy products from businesses in other European Union (EU) countries, you'll have very similar rights to those in the UK. Outside the EU, what rights you'll have will vary according to the country where the business is based and problems might be difficult to resolve.

Complaints

What can I do if a supermarket delivers something that isn't what I ordered?

Often, if a product you have ordered is not available, supermarkets will substitute another product. It's a good idea to check the supermarket's policy on substitutions before you order, so you know what your options are if you receive a product you don't want.

What can I do if I'm not happy with the service I receive when buying goods from home?

First of all, contact the business and give them a chance to put it right. Put your complaint in writing and include:

  • date of advertisement, catalogue or website information where you found out about the product
  • date of order
  • details of what you ordered
  • amount paid and method of payment
  • any reference numbers, such as order or customer number
  • reason for complaint
  • any other relevant information
  • how you would like the situation resolved

If you're not satisfied with the response you get from a UK-based business, you could contact the local authority where the company is based.

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 appears to have breached the regulations. They also have a duty to consider any complaint made to them about a breach.

Your Citizens Advice Bureau may also be able to offer advice. If you have ordered food from abroad, there may be little or nothing they can do.

Who do I contact if I think the advertising for a food product is misleading?

Contact the Environment Health Officer in the local Council where the business is based.

Remember that advertising rules will 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

Can I order meat and dairy products from abroad?

You can order meat and dairy products if they come from within the EU. However, you shouldn't order meat and dairy products, including canned meat, dried meat and cheeses, from countries outside the EU.

How quickly should food be delivered if it's sent 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 should food be packaged if it's sent through the 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.

What should I do if 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. Otherwise, contact the supplier to tell them.

Should food I order 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 should I do if foods that need refrigerating are warm when they're delivered?

If foods that need refrigerating aren't kept cool enough during delivery, they could make you ill. So if this type of food arrives and it's obviously not cold, it's better not to eat it.

You might be able to reject the delivery, depending on the terms of your contract with the supplier. Remember, it's a good idea to check the business's service promises before you order.

The law

Do EU food-safety regulations apply to food I order from home?

If you order food from home, then the food safety rules of the country where the business is based will apply. If you order food from a business within the UK, then UK rules will apply. Within the EU, food safety rules are based on the same European Commission (EC) Directives, so foods ordered from other EU Member States should conform to similar standards.

Outside the EU, the rules differ from country to country, so you can't be sure that the same standards will have been applied as in the EU.

What are the labelling requirements for food products marketed within the UK?

Generally, food products must be labelled in a way that's easy to understand, with print that's clear enough to read. The label must give the following details:

  • name of the food
  • list of ingredients
  • 'use by' or 'best before' date
  • any special instructions about how to store or use the product
  • name of the manufacturer, packer or seller

Some types of product might have other labelling requirements. Labelling law is harmonised within the EU, which means that the same rules apply to food products you buy from countries within the EU as to products from the UK.

In non-EU countries, labelling laws vary. Products bought from outside the EU will follow the rules of the country the food is exported from.

Do suppliers have to provide labelling information online or in a catalogue?

There's no legal requirement to supply labelling information online or in a catalogue - this will depend on the policy of the supplier.

What is the difference between 'Use by' and 'Best before' dates?

You can find information about 'use by' and 'best before' at the following page:

Can I sell on food products I have bought from home?

You can sell food products bought in this way, as long as the products comply with all the relevant requirements of UK food law, for example in relation to labelling and food hygiene.

If you're planning to sell food, you might also have to comply with regulations that apply to food businesses. If you're not sure, contact your local Council for advice. If food products don't comply with UK law, it could be an offence to sell them or give them away.

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