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.

Shopping safely

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 correct 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 

If you're not satisfied with the response you get from a UK-based business, you could contact the local council 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 seems to have broken the regulations. They must investigate any complaint about breaking the regulations.

Citizens Advice might give you advice. If you ordered food from abroad, they might n't be able to help.

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
  • cheeses

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.

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. 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, 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

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, 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, 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.

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 might need to comply with regulations for food businesses. If you're not sure, ask the 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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