General product safety

Among the lesser known pieces of EC legislation is Directive 92/59/EEC on general product safety, implemented in the UK by the General Product Safety Regulations 1994. When the Directive was under discussion in Brussels in the early 1990s it was felt in the UK that it was an unnecessary measure. At that time the Food Safety Act was just coming into force, and at first sight it appeared that all of the provisions of the European Directive were already in place in existing Food Safety and Product Safety legislation. However, the General Product Safety Regulations became reality, and it soon became apparent that there were situations in which new offences would be created and therefore new protection would be available in certain situations. Despite the existence of the Food Safety Act, the General Product Safety Regulations do apply to food. The legislation places a duty upon manufacturers and sellers of goods supplied to consumers to place on the market only 'safe products'. A 'safe product' is defined as any product which under normal or foreseeable conditions of use, including duration, does not present any risk or only the minimum risks compatible with the product's use considered as acceptable and consistent with a high level of protection for the safety and health of persons, taking into account in particular:

• the characteristics of the product, including its composition, packaging, instructions for assembly and maintenance;

• the effect on other products, where it is reasonably foreseeable that it will be used with other products;

• the presentation of the product, the labelling, any instructions for its use and disposal and any other information;

• the categories of consumers at serious risk when using the product, in particular children.

The latter two points are particularly relevant in relation to serious allergy situations, because the legislation brings in the concept of selective risk and recognises that adequate information is a relevant factor in deciding whether or not a product is safe. Although at first glance it would seem difficult to describe a peanut butter cookie as dangerous, closer examination of the provisions of the legislation will show that in deciding whether or not goods are dangerous, regard must be paid to any warnings or information given with the goods.

Where specific EC law on the safety of goods exists (such as the Directive on toy safety), the Directive on general product safety will not override it. The Food Safety Act, however, is UK domestic law which is supplemented by the General Product Safety provisions.

A food product containing nut ingredients, which are not obvious from its name, can be sold in a catering establishment with no information other than its legal name, yet still meet the provisions of food labelling law despite the fact that it may pose a serious threat to a vulnerable sector of the population. However, if the requirements of General Product Safety legislation are taken into account, we have a product with the potential to cause harm. That danger can, however, be mitigated by providing adequate warnings. The use of prominent notices such as 'some of our products may contain nuts or nut traces -please ask staff for details', can be used to make the customer aware of the possible presence of nut ingredients in the absence of full labelling. To date, enforcement authorities have not made wide use of these provisions, but at least one large local authority in the UK has recognised the potential and has referred to the legislation in newspaper publicity aimed at achieving greater awareness of the problem amongst caterers. Again, it should be stressed that this is EC legislation which will apply throughout the European Union.

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