How we deal with your food complaint

Burnley Borough Council’s Food Complaint Policy

Many complaints about food are brought to our attention every year. Both Burnley Borough Council and Lancashire County Council Trading Standards can take action depending on the type of complaint.

What kind of complaints can we investigate?

If food is considered a risk to health, unfit, mouldy or has a foreign object in it then it is the responsibility of the Council in the area where it was sold to investigate the problem. If the food was bought in Burnley then a member of the Food Team of Burnley Borough Council Environment Department will investigate it.

What the Law says

The legislation that aims to ensure consumers are protected in relation to the food they buy is The Food Safety Act 1990. Consumers expect that the food they buy is safe to eat, reaches quality expectations and is not misleadingly presented. If food does not meet these criteria then consumers need to know how to complain. Some complaints can be dealt with by returning the food to the store where it was purchased from, some complaints however warrant further investigation.

Examples of some frequent food complaints:

  • Mouldy food.
  • Food that seems ‘off’ or unfit
  • Food containing foreign matter (e.g. Pieces of metal, glass, plastic, insects)
  • Contaminated food.( e.g. with chemicals)

Best Before and Use By Dates

It is illegal to sell food past its use by date, or to alter the use by date. Use-by dates are used for foods that may not be safe after that date.

It is NOT illegal to sell food after its best before date. Best before dates mean that the manufacturer guarantees that the food will be of best quality up to that date. After that date the quality MAY decline. Best before dates are usually for longer life products.

How is the complaint investigated?

The outcome and length of time it takes to investigate a complaint will depend on individual circumstances. Some investigations involve complex analysis and this may often take longer than you would expect. In any event we will keep you fully informed of what investigations have been made and the outcome.

When a complaint is received, we will obtain as much information as possible from you about the circumstances of purchase and the discovery of the complaint. Initially the food will be examined by the officer. Sometimes complaints, which initially seem to be totally unacceptable, are found to be things

which are not at all harmful e.g. what appeared to be a beetle in a take away meal was in fact a spice pod, therefore no food safety offence was committed and no legal action is taken.

If the officer needs the opinion of other experts the complaint may be sent to the Public Analyst or an expert with specialised knowledge. If the problem appears to have occurred during manufacture of the food, we will contact the manufacturer so that we can establish whether there are other similar complaints and if there is a serious manufacturing problem. We will also contact the local authority that enforces food hygiene at the premises so that we can have an independent opinion of their standards.

Due diligence defence

Food safety offences are ‘strict liability’ offences in that we do not have to prove that there was an intention to break the law. However this is offset by allowing the food company a ‘due diligence’ defence. This defence allows the offender to be found ‘not guilty’ if he can prove that he took all reasonable steps to prevent the offence occurring.

This means that we have to investigate what steps have been taken to ensure the safety of the food and whether more could have been done. This is usually done in co-operation with the local authority in the area where the food was manufactured. Most of the large manufacturers have looked at all parts of their manufacturing processes and have thought of all possible risks. This means that there is often little chance of a successful prosecution.

What action can be taken?

Most complaints are dealt with informally. This is because:

  • the evidence we have is not sufficient to satisfy a court of law ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’,
  • the offender has a good ‘due diligence’ defence or
  • the complaint is deemed too minor to be in the public interest to prosecute

If we don’t take any legal action against the company, with your permission we will pass your name and address to them. Most manufacturers are concerned about both food safety and their public image and will offer their apologies and often a small amount of gift vouchers as recompense. Remember we cannot guarantee this.

In the event that the investigating officer is confident that an offence has been committed and the company have no due diligence defence, formal action will be considered. This could be in the form of a ‘Formal Caution’ or a prosecution.