Food sampling

Page updated on: 10/08/2023

We are required to enforce the provisions of the Food Safety Act 1990 and regulations made under the Act. Food composition and labelling is controlled by this legislation, the most serious offence being to sell 'prejudice food' to the purchasers, which is not of the nature, substance or quality demanded.

Most enforcement action for incorrect descriptions comes from formal samples of foodstuffs. If a sample is shown to be incorrect, there are several possible courses of action that can be taken: a verbal warning, the serving of an improvement notice, a departmental letter of caution, a formal caution, or prosecution.

The majority of enforcement action for incorrect descriptions will result from taking formal samples of foodstuffs (which includes drink). Formal samples may be taken for various reasons, such as:

  • consumer complaints
  • surveillance
  • during a routine inspection

Procedures for sampling are strictly controlled by specific regulations and codes of practice. This legislation gives our authorised officers the power to purchase or take food samples at all reasonable hours; i.e. when the business is operating and staff are on the premises. Failure to allow an authorised officer to take a sample could lead to the commission of an obstruction offence.

Formal food samples will generally consist of either one sample split into three identical parts, or three samples taken from an available batch, depending on what is being sampled and what is being tested for. The three parts are distributed as follows:

  1. selected and retained by the business;
  2. submitted by the officer to a public analyst for analysis;
  3. stored safely with the officer in case of dispute

If you have manufactured or altered the food, or applied the description that is being tested to the food, you may be responsible for any offence. If you are only retailing food supplied to you in the same state, your supplier/the manufacturer may be the responsible person.

The sample portion kept by you is very important and should be stored safely until you receive notification of the analytical results.

It is important that you carry out the following actions relating to the sample you have retained:

  • keep a clear record of where the sample is stored, so that it can be found easily in the future
  • ensure that the best recommended storage conditions are used (see 'Storage of sample portions' below)
  • inform your head office (if applicable) that an official sample has been taken
  • if we inform you of a problem with the part of the sample we took, you may wish to test the sample (if you have suitable facilities) or have the sample tested by an independent party
  • if the sample is sent for independent analysis, you must ensure that clear details are given of the test required and storage conditions (if required), and that the storage during transport to the laboratory is appropriate

If there is a dispute over the analysis, the final portion is sent to the laboratory of the Government Chemist, which has the final say on the result.

If a sample is proved to be incorrect, several possible courses of action may be taken against you:

  • verbal warning
  • serving of an improvement notice
  • departmental letter of caution
  • simple caution notified to all interested bodies, including the originating authority and the Home Authority 
  • prosecution

Occasionally you may be given specific instructions by the sampling officer, and you should follow their guidance - for example, if fresh food is being sampled to check whether it has been previously frozen.

In some instances sampling officers will take a whole product as a single sample - pies for example - in order to establish the percentage content of different ingredients throughout the whole product.