Last updated: 23.10.23

The Food Safety Act 1990: A Guide for Businesses

The safety of food should be a big concern for food businesses. In today’s world, consumers deserve to have confidence that the food they are served is what they expect and won’t cause them any harm, as well as know they are protected from fraud.

All kinds of food safety laws and regulations help to ensure that all food and drink products sold to customers are safe to consume. One of the key pieces of legislation, and one of the oldest, is The Food Safety Act 1990.

If you work in a job that involves producing, packaging, handling, preparing or serving food, your day-to-day responsibilities will be impacted by this legislation. In this article, we explore some of the Food Safety Act 1990 key points and outline what employers and employees need to know to comply with the regulations.

What is the Food Safety Act 1990?

While food legislation affects people across the country, it is those working in production, processing, storage, distribution and sale of food that The Food Safety Act 1990 particularly applies and is relevant to.

The Food Safety Act 1990 sets out environmental regulations for all businesses involved in selling food and buying with a view to selling or supplying food, consigning or delivering it, and preparing, presenting, labelling, storing, transporting, importing or exporting food. It covers a range of activities that occur throughout the food distribution chain in order to outline how all businesses involved in food production can keep their products safe.

Whether it's a large-scale food-processing factory, an independent bakery, a childminder preparing food for other people's children or a canteen in a school, hospital or local authority base, all of these businesses need to comply with the Food Safety Act 1990.

This specific food safety policy does not cover food hygiene regulations, as there is separate legislation for this. However, food hygiene legislation was devised using powers awarded under the Act.

Why Was the Food Safety Act 1990 Introduced?

Legislation controlling food safety standards has always been put in place to make sure consumers' health is never put at harm by the way their food has been prepared. The Food Safety Act 1990 was introduced with the aim of ensuring that all food sold in the UK meets expectations. It provides legal guidance and specifies offences relating to food safety, making sure that UK food hygiene regulations are aligned with legislation and guidance in the EU.

While food safety affects everyone, it is those working in the industry who need to ensure compliance with The Food Safety Act 1990. Once the Act was introduced, there was a clear framework for all other pieces of food safety legislation in the UK. It has been amended in the last few decades, but it remains a guiding piece of law for any new regulations that are introduced for food businesses.

Food safety policy should be a key priority for all businesses that handle, prepare, store or serve food. Legislation like The Food Safety Act 1990 helps clarify what these policies should cover and ensures that businesses find it as easy as possible to comply with and uphold the relevant safety standards.

What Does the Food Safety Act 1990 Cover?

The Food Safety Act 1990 provides the framework for all food legislation in the UK, which affects all food businesses in the country and outlines the standards businesses need to meet in order to protect consumers. The main provisions of the legislation, as outlined in Part 2, cover general food safety, consumer protection, food information, regulations relating to food safety, and defences if an offence is believed to be committed.

Under the Food Safety Act 1990, businesses have three main responsibilities. These are:

  1. To ensure nothing is added to or removed from food that could damage the health of consumers, and that it is not treated in a way that could cause harm.
  2. To ensure all food served or sold to consumers is of the nature, substance and quality they would expect.
  3. To ensure food is never labelled, advertised or presented in a false or misleading way.

According to the government’s facts guide, the Act covers all operations involved in selling and possessing with a value to sale, free supply in the course of a business, consigning and delivering, preparing, presentation and labelling, storing, transporting, and importing and exporting food.

While the Act does not directly cover hygiene, this is because there is separate legislation in regards to this which was created using the powers given under the Food Safety Act 1990. However, it does cover food prepared by childminders in their homes for other people’s children and extends to activities such as the preparation of food in canteens, clubs, schools, hospitals, institutions and public and local authorities.

Any food that is imported must meet food safety and hygiene requirements equivalent to those for UK-produced food. According to the UK government, imported food can be subject to checks by government enforcement authorities at import points, and inland.

Which Is an Offence Under the Food Safety Act 1990?

Environmental law states that all food businesses in the UK must follow the food hygiene regulations set out in The Food Safety Act 1990. Offences committed under the Act or failure to comply can result in heavy fines and even imprisonment

When it comes to determining offences under The Food Safety Act 1990, a simple way of looking at this is to return to the three main responsibilities that businesses have under it. Failing to comply with these responsibilities could mean businesses are committing offences under the Consumer Protection Act 1987, as well as the Food Safety Act 1990.

In short, food businesses must ensure food does not compromise a person’s health, and that it is of the nature, substance, and quality demanded by the purchaser’s prejudice. Food businesses must also make sure they don't falsely describe or present food to customers.

When it comes to the enforcement of this law and the consequences of committing any Food Safety Act 1990 offences, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) states that:

“The day-to-day work of enforcement is, in the main, the responsibility of environmental health practitioners and trading standards officers from local (food) authorities. We enforce some regulations made under the Act (for example, licensing of irradiated food facilities) and have scope to become involved in certain emergency situations or where a local authority fails to discharge its responsibilities under the Act.”

This means that, unless it’s under extenuating circumstances, businesses that fail to comply with The Food Safety Act 1990 will be dealt with by their local authority.


What year was the Food Safety Act introduced?

The Food Safety Act was first introduced in 1990. It replaced previous pieces of legislation that covered similar topics, but provided a much more comprehensive overview of the regulations surrounding food safety.

What is the maximum fine per offence under the Food Safety Act 1990?

Under the Food Safety Act 1990, the maximum fine per offence that a business might be required to pay is £20,000. Alternatively, the person responsible for the legislation breach may face up to six months in prison.

Why are drinks classed as food according to the Food Safety Act 1990?

Drinks are classified as food under the Food Safety Act 1990 because the act covers anything that is “reasonably expected to be ingested by humans”. This includes liquids as well as solid food, so any drinks that are sold by businesses also need to meet the safety standards outlined in the legislation.


Whilst it is the responsibility of local authorities to enforce food hygiene laws like The Food Safety Act, food businesses need to take responsibility for their compliance with the Food Safety Act 1990 as well. One of the best ways to ensure that everyone in a food business is following the relevant food safety laws and regulations is through health and safety training which outlines the necessary procedures that need to be followed at work and the individual responsibilities that everyone has.

Virtual College is a market leader in food hygiene courses and food safety training, with a strong presence in the food and hospitality sector. If you’re looking for food safety training courses for employees, we offer a range of online options for a range of scenarios, including our popular ‘Level 1 Food Safety and Hygiene’, ‘Level 2 Food Safety & Hygiene’ and ‘Level 3 Food Safety and Hygiene for Supervisors’.