Understanding Food Safety Standards in the UK

Image credit: Food Standards Agency via Larne Borough Council

Food Hygiene Rating from FSA

 

Food standards are in place to ensure that the food we eat is consistently up to high safety standards. This field helps protect us from pathogens and poisons in our food and also makes it easier for us to know precisely what we are putting in our bodies when we eat a particular food item.

There are three primary variables governed by food safety standards:

  • Durability
  • Composition
  • Labelling

In the following sections, we are going to look at each of the above in greater detail:

Durability

The durability of a product is essentially its shelf life or use-by date. This communicates to consumers how quickly they should plan on going through a particular product before it begins to develop undesirable characteristics such as off flavours or even dangerous microbes. More specifically, shelf life or durability can be defined as the period of time during which food is safe to consume. In that sense, durability is really just a fancy word for an expiry date.

In order to determine the shelf life, it is essential that the manufacturer have a thorough understanding of their product. In terms of perishable items, the factor that has the greatest bearing on shelf life is the growth of micro-organisms. Alternately, in non-perishable foods, chemical changes can occur over time and ultimately lead to changes in flavour, colour or structure of the food product.

These are a few of the ways that a manufacturer may test the durability of its products:

Basic Shelf-Life Testing: in a basic shelf-life test, the product is kept at the recommended temperature for an extended period of time, and its microbes are periodically measured to determine how long before it becomes unsafe to eat.

Accelerated Shelf Life Testing: In this case, the conditions are changed to encourage microbial growth to develop more quickly. This is accomplished in a variety of ways, including increasing the heat in the test case. It is worth mentioning that accelerated testing can produce less reliable results, but is nonetheless necessary when dealing with longer-lived products.

Challenge Testing: This occurs when a food product is intentionally infected with a pathogen or microbe to determine how easily those agents can grow in the product. This helps to determine which infectious compounds are going to pose the greatest threat to a particular product.

Predictive Microbiology: This is essentially the use of a computer program to model different potential cases. As long as the software is sufficiently sophisticated and the person interpreting its result highly capable, this can be an effective way of determining durability.

Composition

This is essentially the food’s chemical composition, determined through a complex chemical analysis. Most consumers are familiar with nutritional data, which are actually a subset of food composition. However, there is more at stake in this category than simply the ingredients, vitamins and caloric content of the food.

This is actually a surprising complex field due to variations in the way food is manufactured, stored and even transported. Not only that – animal husbandry practices and even the way produce is grown can have a significant effect on its composition and nutritional value. With that in mind, the chemical analyses of – say – two different chicken eggs could theoretically produce very different results, depending on the living conditions and diet of the chickens that produced them.

Even processed foods are subject to significant variation in terms of composition. Manufacturers generally have rigid requirements and regulations regarding the ingredients used in their dishes. Even so, most formulations include excessive amounts of nutrients (essentially overages) to allow for some nutritional value to be lost during handling and packaging. This paves the way for variable final composition even in processed food.

Labelling

Labelling is essentially the means through which manufacturer’s communicate the composition and durability of their products to consumers. Some aspects of labelling are enforced by laws and regulations, while others are not compulsory. In terms of durability, there are two main types of labelling:

Best before date: This indicates the period of time during which you could expect the food to taste the way it is supposed to without posing any risk to the consumer.

Use by date: This label applies to highly perishable foods which will become un-safe to consumer after a period of time. It has more to do with the safety of food.

Further to the above, a product with a use by date may not be sold after that date has come – nor should the product be used after midnight of the day of expiry.

The following are some other data that will usually appear on food packaging:

  •  Product name
  • Manufacturer’s name and address
  • Country of origin
  • Net weight
  • Batch identification
  • Nutritional information

Interpreting food labelling requires a bit of experience. Here are some tips on how to boost your own literacy level when it comes to interpreting food labelling.

About Kate Adams

Kate Addams currently works as a writer for Red Tractor Assurance, a small organization that operates the Red Tractor Assurance, UK’s largest farm and food assurance scheme.