Is it ever ok to knowingly sell food that is not what it says it is?

By Dr Lisa Ackerley, BHA Food Safety Adviser 

Veganuary is now is full swing, with around 150,000 people have pledged to go vegan for January this year.

Veganism is a fast-growing lifestyle movement, with research undertaken by Ipsos Mori in 2016 suggesting there were at least 542,000 people - or 1.05% of the UK population - following a vegan diet. Compare this to 2006, when this number stood at just 150,000. It’s undeniable that veganism is on the rise, and with close to half of all vegans being in the 15-34 age category, compared to 14% of people over 65, it is predicted to continue to do so.

More vegans mean more demand for vegan products in shops and restaurants, and food businesses are certainly responding to the demand - between 2012 and 2016, there was a 185% jump in the number of vegan products launched in the UK.

Most caterers are rising to the challenge and providing more choice and variety to customers who have different dietary requirements. While it can put pressure on a restaurant to ensure a menu caterers for everyone, it is important to ensure that special dietary requests are met without mistake.

Recently, a restaurant hit the news because the chef posted on Facebook that she had deliberately added meat to a vegan meal. Apart from this not being very nice, what other implications might there be?

In terms of food safety, the law says that you have to sell the customer what has been agreed – in other words, if you say it is vegan, then it must be vegan, just as if you claim something is nut free, it must be nut free. This is embedded in our food law, and dates back from the 19th Century when people were being sold adulterated food which in many cases caused harm.

So quite simply, if you put an ingredient into a meal, and the customer has asked for that meal to be free of that ingredient, then you could be committing an offence.

Under the Food Safety Act 1990, the following sections would apply:

  • Section 14: selling to the purchaser’s prejudice any food which is not of the nature or substance or quality demanded by the purchaser.
  • Section 15: falsely describing or presenting food.

The fines for these offences could be up to £20,000 each in a magistrates’ court, but under the new Sentencing Guidelines could be much higher, depending upon level of harm, culpability and turnover of the business (not profit)!

Furthermore, the customer could also sue for damages if they are served food that they avoid –

  • If they have an allergic reaction
  • For religious reasons
  • For the upset from being given something they have objections to eating (e.g. meat for a vegan).

If your establishment serves food, take these instances as a warning and ensure that everyone who handles food is aware that these acts of defiance towards special dietary requests are against the law and could land the establishment in some rather hot water.

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