Officers investigate complaints from members of the public about conditions or practices which they have observed in food premises, and about the fitness or quality of food they buy, e.g. foreign objects, mould growth or unusual odours.
Food complaints can be sent for analysis to identify any foreign objects, which can help to establish how they may have got into the product. The officer will contact the retailer, supplier, manufacturer and if necessary the District Council where the product was made.
A decision will then be made as to whether or not there is sufficient evidence to justify taking a prosecution against the company responsible for the problem.
How do we investigate your complaint?
Often we send samples of food to a council-appointed public analyst who gives us an expert opinion on what is wrong with it. The food is very often destroyed during analysis so we can’t return it to you later. This process can take up to 2 months.
If you don’t have the original food, we’ll visit the premises and collect samples of similar food which will be sent to the Public Health Laboratory for microbiological analysis. This can take up to 2 weeks.
We’ll always inform you of the results of any testing carried out or samples taken.
We’ll consider what precautions have been taken to prevent your complaint. If the complaint arose through circumstances which couldn’t have been foreseen or prevented, the law prevents us from taking action.
How long does an investigation take?
The time taken to investigate a complaint will vary, ranging from a few days to many months. Cases that result in a formal caution or prosecution can take over a year to complete.
What are the likely outcomes of your complaint?
The complaint investigation will establish whether any offence has been committed. If there haven’t been any offences and there is no continuing risk to health, the investigation will be closed.
If we have sufficient evidence to prove that an offence has been committed, we’ll consider the following issues in deciding what action to take:
- the seriousness of the offence and the likely penalty
- whether anyone has been negligent
- the likelihood of the offender re-offending
- your views.
Our main aim is to make sure that the public is protected from the possibility of any similar complaints in the future. The action we take will be informal or formal.
This usually involves a written or verbal warning. Informal action will be taken when:
it appears to be an isolated incident, involving an otherwise satisfactory company
the company can show that they’ve taken all reasonable precautions to minimise the risk of similar complaints (legally known as a defence of ‘due diligence’)
we have insufficient evidence to prove a case in court.
This involves formally cautioning the company or prosecuting it in court. In the case of prosecution you must be willing to give evidence of:
- where and when you bought the food
- when and how it was stored in your home
- how you discovered the fault.
In some cases, you may be asked to attend court as a witness but often evidence can be given in the form of a written and signed statement. It’ll be necessary to release your name to the company if we take legal proceedings.
You’ll be told about the outcome of the investigation and the investigating officer will explain to you the reasons behind the final decision in your case.
We’ll keep your identity strictly confidential. Sometimes a business may want to apologise, in these cases we’ll only reveal your identity if you give your consent.
Consideration will also be made to our enforcement policies.
Will this investigation help me to claim compensation?
Our food team won’t give you advice about your right to compensation. You’d need to take independent legal advice regarding this. The Citizens Advice Bureau can provide further information regarding your legal rights.
- keep the original food
- keep perishable food under temperature control (i.e. refrigerated or frozen) especially if your complaint involves decomposition or off smells and tastes
- it’s important that where possible you give us receipts (not essential but helpful), packaging and labels so that we can make as full an investigation as possible
- we don’t routinely pass on your details to food businesses and would only do so with your permission
- keep the food in the wrapper (if possible) and put it in an air-tight container
- read the label for ‘Best Before’ and ‘Use By’ dates, and instructions for use. If you use food that is out of date, or in a different manner than that required by the manufacturers instructions, you can expect problems.
- be tempted to handle or pull out any ‘foreign object’ found in the food, leave it in place.
- put the food in a place where further deterioration or contamination could take place (e.g. near other foods).
- throw away any of the food or packaging.
If the complaint doesn’t involve a food sample we’ll still investigate it.
Useful Website Links
Food Standards Agency for Northern Ireland
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