The legal background the Food Safety Act 1990

Since the days of Magna Carta there have been controls over the sale of food in one form or another. The right to 'one measure throughout the land' was an early example of this. Since that time there have been legal controls to prevent the adulteration of food. Flour and milk were early examples, to prevent the addition of chalk to flour (later required by law to boost the calcium content), and to prohibit the addition of water to milk. Since that time the technology of food and the structure of our society has become infinitely more complex. As a consequence issues which once constituted clear breaches of the law are now less easy to discern. We are now in a situation of needing to exercise judgement in order to decide whether or not a situation which may be prejudicial to some will actually give rise to an offence, or whether some other course of action may be open to the consumer. In examining the issue of food intolerance, we need to ask ourselves whether food which may be perfectly wholesome for the majority of the population may give rise to the commission of an offence under criminal legislation when it has adverse effects upon others.

The UK Food Safety Act 1990 creates certain offences. Included among these are those of:

• rendering food injurious to health;

• selling food which fails to comply with the food safety requirement because it has been rendered injurious to health, or is unfit for human consumption;

• selling food that is so contaminated that it is not reasonable to expect it to be used for human consumption;

• selling food which is not of the nature, substance and quality demanded by the purchaser; and

• giving a misleading label with food.

These provisions are intended to protect the consumer from deliberate and accidental chemical and microbiological contamination, from foreign bodies in food, from food of unacceptable quality, and from being misled. The initial problem is that a food which is perfectly safe for the majority of the population can present problems for others. This raises the question of whether or not such food is 'unsafe'. Where does allergenicity fit into this? Put simply, it does not: the offences are intended to capture mainstream contamination and abuse. Whilst it would be possible to fit certain specific situations into the law, consumers who have a specific problem need to look at avoidance rather than rely on the law to eliminate certain foods or ingredients from their diet.

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