Article is available in full to IFST members and subscribers.

Register on the FST Journal website for free

Click the button to register to FST Journal online for free and gain access to the latest news


If you are an IFST member, please login through the Members Area of the IFST website. 













History of UK food law

Simon Dawson charts the development of food law from its origins in 1266.

Food legislation has been designed to set a minimum standard that society finds acceptable by ensuring the safety of food, its composition and its correct identification from farm to fork. Throughout history, the advancement of knowledge and development of food legislation has had four key purposes, which include protecting the consumer, protecting the manufacturer or trader, protecting fair competition and offering the freedom of choice.

There is documented evidence dating back to 6000 BC highlighting spoilage of food and the problems of disease transmission to humans, predominantly as a result of poor preparation and storage. At this time subsistence farming meant families only produced enough food for themselves therefore consumer protection was unwarranted. However, as society advanced, food began to be prepared, produced and marketed. It was at this point that it became essential for consumers to be protected from hazards instigated by others either accidentally or deliberately.

Some of the earliest forms of adulterants were found in bread flour, which was commonly bulked up with sand, ash, sawdust and mustard flour. Ground animal bones were also used as an adulterant to make flour whiter, as white flour was considered a luxury and demanded a premium price. Other foods often adulterated included tea, using dried beech leaves, milk with the simple addition of water and coffee with maize and other cereal grains.

The first law in British history to regulate the production and sale of food began in 1266. The Assisa Panis et Cervisiæ, or Assize of Bread and Ale was developed in late Medieval English Law to regulate the price, weight and quality of manufactured bread and beer. At this time, the British had developed the skills and technology to formulate objective measurements of the size or weight of foods, however not the quality. Food quality was judged using subjective means, which included appearance, aroma and taste. A popular method of testing ale quality was conducted by Ale Connors, who were the equivalent of the modern Customs and Exercise. The ale would initially be tasted and then poured on to a wooden bench or stool. The inspector would then sit on the bench wearing leather breeches. After about a minute, he would stand up and see if the ale stuck to his breeches. If the ale stuck, it was considered good quality.

Moving on a few hundred years adulteration became the rule rather than the exception. Early efforts to regulate quality standards in the Middle Ages were conducted by corporations of craftsmen, called the guilds. However these were set up to protect the market rather than the customer or consumer. The guilds were only present in towns and cities, therefore adulteration outside these areas was still unregulated. Consumer protection at this time was purely coincidental rather than deliberate.

Nothing really changed until the 19th Century, when scientific development pioneered by the German chemist Frederick Accum highlighted the extent of food adulteration in the market. He published a book called The Treatise on Adulteratios of Food and Culinary Poisons in 1820, which detailed methods for detecting adulterants within foods and drink. The book was so popular that within one month of publication it has sold one thousand copies. Shortly after publication, it was reprinted with the addition of milk, cinnamon, isinglass and Spanish liquorice juice. After the release of his revised book, Accum followed up by publishing the names and addresses of each of the convicted food traders that had knowingly sold adulterated food and drink. This made him some powerful enemies.

The police were informed that Accum had borrowed and damaged books owned by the Royal Institution of Great Britain. His home was searched and the damaged books were found. It was unknown whether he had damaged the books himself or whether they had been planted to incriminate him, either way he was arrested and charged. When he appeared before Court he was granted bail, however by this stage his reputation was ruined and his work disgraced. Since he could no longer continue, he returned to his home country, Germany, and for the next 30 years adulterated food and drink flourished.

During the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the 19th Century, people moved towards towns and cities for work and became reliant on food retailers as a result. Industrial managers became increasingly infuriated by high levels of absenteeism, a major cause of which was the consumption of adulterated foods. In the 1850’s, Thomas Wakley, a surgeon and MP, and physician Arthur Hill Hassall conducted extensive work on samples of food and drink purchased from the marketplace. They catalogued each of the vendors, locations, dates and products purchased. Each food and drink item was analysed and the results were published. It was concluded that food adulteration was a lot more common than was believed and that many of the adulterated foods were actually poisonous. This information, coupled with industrial pressure on the Government, lead to the development of The Adulteration of Food and Drugs Act 1860, which was later revised in 1872, and the Sale of Food and Drugs Act 1875. The revised Adulteration of Food and Drugs Act 1872 made provisions for the appointment of public analysts. Two years later the Society of Public Analysts was founded.

In the Early 20th Century foodborne illness became more broadly recognised and as a result, statutes connected to food safety and food quality were introduced. These included The Milk and Dairies Act 1914, which covered the production and sale of clean and safe milk for human consumption. Compositional requirements had also been introduced for some foods.

A few years after the end of the First World War the Food and Drugs (Adulterations) Act 1928 was launched. This consolidated the Sale of Food and Drugs Acts and although it included no new regulations, it made the previous acts easier to enforce. Ten years later, the Food and Drugs Act 1938 introduced penalties for false or misleading labels and advertising as this had become more widespread than the adulteration of food.

World War 2 saw rationing and food shortages throughout the UK. With the shortages came price premiums, so lucrative opportunities for food adulteration became rife. A crisis plan had to be introduced to ensure that the most efficient use of available food was made. The Government took control of food stocks through The Defence (Sale of Food) Regulations 1943. These Regulations were accompanied by a White Paper explaining their origin and intention. The Regulations stated that pre-packed foods should bear a label indicating the name and address of the packer, the common or usual name of the food, the minimum quantity of food in the package and the ingredients (but not the quantities); if any food claimed the presence of a vitamin or mineral, this also had to be shown in the ingredients.

1968 saw the introduction of two very important changes within food law. The Medicines Act 1968 divided the legislation relating to food and control of medicines for human and veterinary use for the first time. It also saw the introduction of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968, which gave fresh provisions prohibiting false or misleading advertising and product claims, false indications as to the price of goods and the use of unauthorised emblems signifying royal awards.

The next major change in UK food law came with the introduction of the Food Act 1984. This Act consolidated previous food safety provisions however came under fire because it had failed to impose satisfactory standards within the food industry and was seen as not being sufficiently thorough. Key words associated with the controlof safe food had been left out of the Act including both ‘hazard’ and ‘safety’. As a result, after extensive redrafting by the Government and associated bodies, the Food Safety Act 1990 was passed.

The Food Safety Act 1990 provides the framework within which all food legislation in the UK is written, and although amendments have been made, the majority of the framework still applies. The Act comprises four key sections ensuring both food safety and consumer protection. These include rendering food injurious to health, selling food not complying with food safety requirements, selling food not of the nature, substance or quality demanded and falsely describing or presenting food.

Since its introduction in 1990, the Food Safety Act has brought with it a wealth of additional legislative requirements geared towards food safety, food quality and trading standards. Some of the most significant changes within food law have been introduced over the last 14 years. The European Union approved the General Food Law Regulation in 2002 (Regulation (EC) No 178/2002), which created new laws on safety, traceability, withdrawal and recall requirements. In order for the UK to enforce this new regulation, the General Food Regulation 2004 was enacted, which even changed the definition of food as originally presented in the Food Safety Act 1990.

Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) had been seen as a vital food safety and hazard prevention tool within the food industry. As a result, the European Union adopted the Hygiene of Foodstuffs Regulation (EC) No 852/2004, which introduced HACCP as a legal requirement throughout Europe for the first time. This regulation became mandatory from 1st January 2006 and states that all food business operators should establish and operate their food safety programmes based on the seven principles of HACCP.

Although many updates, predominantly linked with labelling, have occurred within the UK since 2006, there has been little change towards food safety. However, with the recent adulteration incidents making headline news and the subsequent Elliot Review highlighting the continuing risk to the public from adulteration, further change to current UK and EU food safety legislation is inevitable.

Simon Dawson is a lecturer in the Food Production and Food Processing Technology Department, Cardiff School of Health Sciences, Cardiff Metropolitan University, Western Avenue, Cardiff, CF5 2YB, UK.
Tel: 029 2020 5637 Email: Web:

View the latest digital issue of FS&T or browse the archive


Click here

Become a member of the Institute of Food Science and Technology