Throughout the twentieth century numerous consolidating and other statutes often dealing with specific foods were passed. The development of science meant it was to play a bigger role in the food industry. The focus began to shift from adulterants to the use of additives, preservers and improvers.
At the same time advances in the science of bacteriology led to the identification of a number of organisms responsible for outbreaks of food poisoning. This was accompanied by the development of a parallel strand of public health legislation. The Public Health (Regulations as to Food) Act 1907 paved the way for public health regulations.
There were […] Orders made under the Milk and Dairies (Amendment) Act 1922 which was directed at the prevention of milk-borne tuberculosis, by empowering Local Authorities to issue licences to milk producers to sell milk designated as certified, pasteurized, tuberculin tested etc. and laying down the conditions under which these licences could be granted. These Orders provided the first example of a direct application of specific bacteriology to food legislation. Other Orders relate to the sanitation of dairies and equipment used in the handling, conveyance and distribution of milk.1
The Food and Drugs Act 1938 was the first legislation to combine food specific legislation with public health measures. The 1938 Act made food poisoning notifiable across the country, introduced penalties for false or misleading labels and advertisements, and the power to make regulations governing the composition and labelling of foods.
The advent of World War 2 led to food shortages and rationing across the UK. The law of supply and demand meant that some foods came at a premium and with this came lucrative opportunities for adulterating food. The Defence (Sale of Food) Regulations 19432 were introduced to enable requirements concerning the labelling of food containers and the composition of food. Offences in relation to labelling and advertisements were extended to include those which mislead as to the nutritional or dietary value of a food. Pre-packed foods must bear a label indicating the name and address of the packer, the name of the food, the minimum quantity in the package, the common or usual ingredients. A quantitative disclosure was required where the presence of any vitamin or mineral content in the food is claimed.
The Medicines Act 1968 brought about the separation of legislation relating to food and the control of medicines for human and veterinary use. In that same year the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 introduced new provisions concerning the prohibition on false or misleading advertising.
The Food and Drugs Act 1955 had consolidated developments since 1938 and remained in force until repealed by the Food Act 1984, which made no substantial new change.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom had become a member of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. The European Communities Act 1972 both incorporated EEC food law into UK domestic law and gave greater powers to ministers to make regulations3 to ensure compliance with EEC law.
A number of landmark cases brought before the European Court of Justice about this time involved foodstuffs and a fuller account is given in the Introduction to European Union Law.
The Government had indicated that a review of food law would take place even before the Food Act 1984 Act was passed. The Government’s view was that the same food legislation should cover England, Scotland and Wales. Furthermore, the then legislative framework was inadequate to cope with modern food manufacturing methods. A consultation document4 and a White Paper5 followed and the Food Safety Act 1990 was the result. An attempt was made during the passage of the legislation to establish a ‘Food Safety Agency’ similar to the Health and Safety Commission but this was rejected by the Government.
The 1990 Act applied to England, Scotland and Wales (most also applies to Northern Ireland6). The 1990 Act added to core food safety provisions new controls over food businesses and premises, emergencies and new powers to regulate food sources, novel foods, genetically modified food and food contact materials. The introduction of the 1990 Act was overseen by the Implementation Advisory Committee with representation from various relevant professional bodies. The Committee’s main task was to prepare codes of practice to be issued under section 40 of the 1990 Act and take EU legislation into account. The emphasis was on self-regulation and the 1990 Act created a defence of due diligence7 making it in the interests of food manufacturers to have appropriate systems in place to bring to attention any problems in the production process. The 1990 Act established the framework for food legislation which, while it has been amended, applies to this day.
The 1990s was a decade dominated by food scares, in particular the recognition in 1996 of the transmission, by means of the consumption of contaminated beef, of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) to humans as variant Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease (vCJD), a fatal and incurable brain infection.
In the EU food law had been built upon the framework for the Common Agricultural Policy and measures adopted in the development of the internal market. The advent of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 which added new treaty provisions concerning the protection of human health,8 consumer protection9 and the environment10 against a background of major food scares provided strong impetus for the developments which were to take place at both a national and EU level.
The conflict faced by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is such that a new body which separates the role of protecting public health and safety from that of promoting business was required.
The enforcement of food law is uneven throughout the UK. Regulations under the Food Safety Act 1990 are enforced to varying standards from authority to authority.
The outcome was the Food Standards Act 1999 which gave rise to the Food Standards Agency as the UK body with primary responsibility for food safety. Ministerial responsibility rests with the Secretary of State for Health and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile a Commission Green Paper12 was published in 1997 with stated aims which included launching a public debate on food legislation. Following the BSE food scare EU rules on the traceability of products of bovine origin were introduced, similar rules for other animal products were then under consideration and traceability was to gain greater prominence in EU food law.
1 Henry Yellowlees, ‘Food Safety: A Century of Progress’ in MAFF, Food Quality and Safety: A Century of Progress, HMSO, 1976. p63
2 SR&O 1943/1553
4 MAFF, Review of Food Legislation, Consultative Document, 1985
5 MAFF, Food Safety – Protecting the Consumer, White Paper, Cm 732, 1989
6 The Food Safety (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 SI 1991/762 (NI 7)
8 Article 129
9 Article 129(a)
10 Article 130(r)
11 Philip James, Food Standards Agency: An Interim Proposal, 30 April 1997. The report was commissioned by the Labour Party in opposition in order that it should be well placed, if elected to power, to take prompt action.
12 EU Commission, The General Principles of Food Law in the European Union, 30 April 1997, COM (97) 176 final