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Food safety

Register a complaint

  • Introduction

    We can investigate complaints about food bought, provided or manufactured in Belfast. However, officers will not be carrying out visits to commercial or domestic premises unless they are deemed critical to public health.

    The safety of staff and members of the public will be a key consideration in any action taken.

    You can register a complaint by emailing envhealth@belfastcity.gov.uk.

  • Why should I complain?

    If you have concerns about a food premises in Belfast let us know. We will investigate your complaint to: 

    • identify and prevent risk to public health
    • investigate possible food safety offences, and
    • improve standards in food premises and improve handling practices.
  • What happens first?

    Once you make a complaint we will contact you as soon as possible to:

    • confirm details of your complaint with you
    • provide you with an initial assessment of your complaint, and
    • give you details of how to keep in touch with us.

    If you have a sample of the food we'll advise you on how to store it until such times as it can be collected or submitted for examination.

    The premises that sold you the food may not be visited or inspected at this time but we will advise you when we contact you.

    If your food wasn't bought in Belfast, you'll be asked to contact the local council where you bought it. We can help with contact details so that you can contact them directly or, we can refer the complaint for you.

    If you have a disability and are unable to submit the food please discuss this with us and we will advise you on the most appropriate course of action.

  • What if I don't live in Belfast?

    If you don't live in Belfast please inform the investigating officer who will give you advice on this matter. 

    If you have the receipt and any labelling or packaging for the food, please retain these as this will facilitate the officer with the investigation. It is advisable to freeze the product if it is perishable.

  • What information do you need?

    When we contact you we'll ask for additional information. We need to know: 

    • where and when you bought the food
    • how you discovered the cause for complaint
    • how you stored the food since you bought it
    • how the food was packaged when you bought it, and
    • how your complaint affected you (for example, were you injured or ill, did you lose any money as a result?).
    • we may also ask you and other witnesses to provide statements.
  • How do you investigate my complaint?

    Often we send samples of food to a council-appointed public analyst who gives us an expert opinion on what is wrong. The food is very often destroyed during analysis so we can't return it to you later. This process can take up to two months. 

    If you don't have the original food, we may visit the premises when operational and collect samples of similar food which will be sent to the Public Health Laboratory for microbiological analysis. This can take up to two 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. We envisage that due to coronavirus and business closures that investigations will take longer than usual however, staff will keep you up to date with progress. Cases that result in a formal caution or prosecution can take over a year to complete. 

  • What are the possible outcomes of my 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, and
    • 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.

    Informal action

    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, and
    • we have insufficient evidence to prove a case in court.

    Formal action

    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, and
    • 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.

    We will consider our enforcement policies at all times.

  • Tips

    Do

    • keep the original food
    • keep perishable food under temperature control (refrigerated or frozen) especially if your complaint involves decomposition or off smells and tastes
    • give us receipts (not essential but helpful), packaging and labels so that we can make as full an investigation as possible keep the food in the wrapper (if possible) and put it in an air-tight container, and 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 instructed by the manufacturer you can expect problems. Don't 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 (for example near other foods), or throw away any of the food or packaging.
  • Common food complaints

    Here are some typical food complaints with a short explanation and suggestions for the most suitable course of action. 

    No public health risk. Return to retailer.

     Common food complaints
    Bakery goods

    Bakery char: bread and cakes may contain bits of overcooked dough that has flaked off the bakery tins. It's not necessarily an indicator of poor hygiene, although they may be mistaken for rodent droppings. These are black and a regular torpedo shape, while bakery char is blackish and comes in uneven shapes.

    Carbonised grease: the machinery used to produce bread and cakes is lubricated with a non-toxic vegetable oil. Occasionally some oil may become incorporated into dough giving areas of the product a grey or greasy appearance.

    In both cases there is no public health risk and we advise you contact the manufacturer or retailer.
     
    Chocolate or confectionery

    Bloom: chocolate may develop a light coloured bloom if stored at too high a temperature. It isn't mould but is due to fat separation. It's not harmful.

    Crystals: large crystals may form in confectionery and may be mistaken for glass. The crystals will dissolve in warm water.

     
    Dried foods

    Insects: Dried products such as flour, sugar and pulses may contain small insects such as psocids (book lice). These don't carry disease, but they eat through the paper of the packet. They breed very quickly in warm dark, humid conditions, and so spread into uncontaminated food very quickly.

    No public health risks. Throw out all affected food, clean cupboards with a weak bleach solution and dry thoroughly. Store new dried goods in airtight containers, make sure there is good ventilation in kitchen.

     
    Fish

    Luminous marine bacteria: Can sometimes be found on seafood. Crabmeat, cooked shrimp and simulated seafood products made from surimi are the most common seafood associated with luminescence or glowing. When seafood glows it means that luminous bacteria are present. This suggests that the seafood was held for a time at a temperature that bacteria could grow. It doesn't mean the seafood is unsafe or of low quality. There are no reports of illness from luminous marine bacteria growing on seafood.

    Codworm: white fish such as cod or haddock may be infested with a small, round brownish yellow worm. These are found in the flesh. They are killed by cooking and are harmless to humans. The affected parts of the fish are usually cut away, but some may be overlooked.

    No public health risk. Contact manufacturer.
     
    Meat

    Skin or bones: products made from meat and or poultry may contain small bones or skin or parts of blood vessels. These are unsightly but not a health risk as they are normal parts of the original animal.

    No public health risk. Contact manufacturer.
     
    Tinned food

    Insects: occasionally small grubs may be discovered in canned vegetables. These are commonly found in sweetcorn and tomatoes. The grubs are in fact the larvae of a moth. They live inside the kernel and so are impossible to see before processing. They are killed and sterilised by the canning process. As the use of pesticides decreases, the incidence of these pests will increase.

    Wasps and fruit flies: these are common in tins of fruit. They are naturally associated with ripe fruit and don't carry disease.

    In these cases there is no public health risk. Contact manufacturer.
     

    Struvite: Certain naturally occurring elements in fish may develop into hard crystals during the canning process. These crystals may be mistaken for glass fragments and are called struvite. It isn't harmful and will be broken down by stomach acids if swallowed. It's especially common in tinned salmon. Struvite crystals will be dissolved if placed in vinegar and gently heated, glass won't.

    No public health risk. Contact us or manufacturer. 
     

    Mould: dented, damaged, or incorrectly processed tins may allow mould growth to occur. This could indicate an error in production or storage. 

    Possible public health risk. Contact us.
     
    Vegetables and fruit

    Stones, soil and slugs: fruit and vegetables commonly have soil, stones or small slugs on them. This is quite normal as they originate in the soil.

    Greenfly:  Salad vegetables may have green fly, especially lettuce. This is becoming increasingly common as the use of pesticides decreases. Greenfly are difficult to wash off and they aren't harmful. In fact they demonstrate that the salad is fresh.

    No public health risk. Wash thoroughly.
     

    Mould growth: this will naturally occur when fruit and vegetables become damaged and bruised. This will be minimised if the buyer checks the produce before purchase.

    No public health risk. Dispose of damaged items.
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