So you want to… sell food to the public

Tapping into the burgeoning market for locally produced food and drink that come with a story brings potentially larger profit margins, but also carries risk.

For anyone going down this route, it is important to understand the hygiene and safety risks involved with food and the legal obligations on labelling and traceability.

Food industry specialist Colin Kiddell, a member of Anglia Rural Consultants, offers tips on the main areas.

Registration requirements

Anyone starting a new food business, or taking over an existing one, must register it with the local authority at least 28 days before opening.

A food business is defined as one preparing, cooking, storing, handling, distributing, supplying or selling food.

Registration is free and cannot be refused. However, if a business produces, processes or wholesales meat, fish, egg or dairy products, it may also require approval by the local council.

See also: More diversification information here

If this is the case, a local authority environmental health officer (EHO) will make arrangements to visit the premises to assess whether the food preparation areas and food safety procedures are suitable.

“I would say it is best practice to talk to an EHO regardless,” says Mr Kiddell.

“Some people are apprehensive about talking to them, but they shouldn’t be, as they are usually very helpful.

“They are not there to trip people up. They would rather speak to someone to prevent an issue, than have to visit you after there has been a major outbreak of food poisoning.”

The food standards team, which may be part of the local authority’s Trading Standards or Environmental Health Department, has responsibility for areas such as weights and measures, trades descriptions and labelling.

Get an HACCP

Since 2006 all food businesses must put in place and manage a system or procedures based on HACCP principles.

HACCP stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, and is an internationally recognised food safety plan to ensure steps are in place to minimise food safety hazards.

The concept was originally developed by Nasa in the 1960s to ensure that food was safe for astronauts to consume before it was sent into space.

There are three main types of food safety hazards: microbiological – involving harmful bacteria; chemical – involving chemical contamination; and physical – involving objects getting into food.

HACCP involves:

  • Looking closely at what you do, what could go wrong and what risks there are to food safety
  • Identifying any critical control points a business needs to focus on, to ensure those risks are removed or reduced to safe levels
  • Deciding what action you need to take if something goes wrong
  • Making sure that your procedures are being followed and are working
  • Keeping records to show your procedures are working.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has produced Safer Food Better Business information packs to help businesses manage food safety and hygiene while also meeting HACCP standards.

It also offers a free web tool to guide businesses through the process of developing a food safety management system.

Food hygiene certificates

Food businesses need to demonstrate that any staff handling food are instructed or trained in food hygiene matters appropriate for their work.

Food handlers do not have to hold a food hygiene certificate to prepare or sell food, so long as they have been suitably instructed.

“But practically, a certificate is recommended, as it helps to demonstrate that staff are appropriately trained and it is regarded as best practice to do so,” advises Mr Kiddell.

The FSA provides free online food safety training and the British Hospitality Association also has guidance for the catering industry.

Food labelling and traceability

All pre-packed food requires a food label that displays certain mandatory information. However, if selling from a food stall, this information can be displayed as a sign.

Labels must include:

  • Name of the food
  • List of ingredients (ordered by weight)
  • Quantity of certain ingredients (if mentioned in the name or highlighted on the packaging)
  • Allergens (marked in bold)
  • Product weight
  • Batch code
  • Use by or best before date
  • Country of origin
  • Address and postcode of the manufacturer or seller

Some loose foods – such as fruit and vegetables – can be sold by count, but if selling by weight, the price/kg must be displayed on the pack or prominently on the stand.

Where a food business is buying ingredients to make an added-value product, it is important to keep records to be able to offer traceability in the event of a problem.

Best-before/use-by dates

Working out best-before and use-by dates should be discussed with the EHO, as dates will be determined by the type of product and how it is handled.

Refrigeration/temperature requirements

It is a legal requirement in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and recommended in Scotland, to keep cold food at 8C or below.

In practice, it is recommended to set fridges at 5C to make sure that food is kept sufficiently cold.

Fridge temperatures should be checked regularly using a probe thermometer and the results recorded.

How frequently these checks are required will depend on the risk profile of the products , but the Food Standards Agency’s guidance for retailers is that the temperature of fridges and chilled display equipment should be checked at least once a day.

Frozen food needs to be kept at -18C or colder.

If selling hot food, there is a legal requirement that any food that needs to be kept hot must be kept at a temperature of 63C.

Transporting food safely

It is important to ensure that food is transported in packaging or containers that protect it from becoming contaminated with dirt or bacteria, and that raw and ready-to-eat foods are kept apart.

Chilled and frozen foods must be kept at the right temperature.

For small volumes it may be possible to use insulated containers with icepacks and a thermometer, but refrigerated vans are more appropriate for larger volumes.

Businesses sending chilled food products – such as boxed meat products –  by mail order will need to pack it in an insulated box with a coolant gel or in a cool bag.

They can either keep the delivery area local, so they keep control of getting it to the customer quickly and safely, or use a recognised company that offers fast and reliable delivery that ensures the food does not become unsafe or unfit to eat.

Hand-washing facilities

Effective hand-washing is essential to help prevent bacteria, viruses and allergens spreading to food.

If selling food from a building, some form of hand-washing facilities will need to be available other than toilet washbasins.

The FSA guidance is that staff that work with food must wash their hands:

  • When in the kitchen or preparation area before preparing food
  • After touching raw food
  • After handling food waste or emptying a bin
  • After cleaning
  • After blowing their nose
  • After touching phones, light switches, door handles and cash registers.

Staff should dry their hands on a disposable towel.

The FSA advises that the best way in which food handlers can maintain good personal hygiene is by frequently washing their hands.

It says while gloves can be used as an aide to good food hygiene practice, they should not be considered a substitute for a thorough regime of effective hand washing.

“I would suggest it is best practice when serving food to wear gloves and take steps to avoid cross-contamination,” adds Mr Kiddell.

“If there is only one person on a stall, then this will involve taking gloves off to handle money, but if there are two people, they should arrange it so that one of them handles the food and the other takes the money.”

Waste management

Food waste must be kept in a store designed and managed in a way that enables it to be kept clean and free of pests.

A commercial waste management company should be used for the disposal of waste food.

Insurance

It is important to have appropriate product liability insurance to offer cover injury or damage by your products, and public liability insurance if bringing customers on to the farm.

Talk to your insurance provider for guidance on the appropriate level of cover.

Are the rules consistent across the UK?

The FSA has responsibility for food safety and food hygiene in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, while Food Standards Scotland operates in Scotland.

The rules are largely the same, but there may be minor differences between the two bodies.

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