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Food sampling


Foods and drink can cause people to be ill because they are contaminated with harmful micro-organisms and/or their toxins (poisons) - this is often called food poisoning.

These micro-organisms are mostly bacteria and moulds, which are often invisible to the naked eye. The only way to detect if these harmful micro-organisms are present is to have food samples examined in a laboratory capable of analysing the foods properly. Some foods can form natural hazards to consumers if they are not correctly stored.

By taking food samples for examination, we are seeking to detect contaminated food and correct any problems before people become ill. This is part of our proactive approach to ensuring food safety.

Why do we need a food sampling policy?

  • It is important that food businesses and the public have access to a clear statement on why we take food samples, how we do it, and how we follow-up the results.
  • This policy statement enables food businesses to know what to expect if an Authorised Officer calls at their business to take samples.
  • It also enables the public to have greater confidence in the microbiological quality of the foods produced and sold in our area.

This policy commits this Council to a programme of food-sampling using procedures that are practical and consistent.

What is a food-sampling programme?

  • Every year as part of our Food Safety Service Plan, we plan our food sampling activities for the year ahead and produce a documented programme, which we intend to follow.
  • Our programme consists of several elements:
  • Sampling from certain businesses that require special approval e.g. dairy products;
  • Sampling from a variety of businesses as part of national and local co-ordinated monitoring programmes e.g. salads, ready to eat foods, etc;
  • Sampling from local businesses that undertake special food production methods e.g. vacuum packing of smoked foods;
  • Sampling as part of a local initiative e.g. takeaway meals;
  • In addition to this programme, samples may be taken for other purposes including:
  • For legal evidence as a result of a food premises inspection, the detention/seizure of food, food complaint or suspected food poisoning outbreak.
  • To assist in the investigation of food poisoning or food hygiene complaints.
  • To assess whether improvements in Food Safety have been made.
  • At the request of a food business when new products or processes are introduced where they wish to reimburse the Food Authority.

Our target is to take sufficient samples to meet the above requirements.

What does informal and formal sampling mean?

  • Most food samples are taken for surveillance and monitoring purposes and to provide advice to businesses - this is called informal sampling.
  • Occasionally a food sample is taken for the purpose of legal evidence as laid down in the Food Safety Act 1990 or is sent to an approved laboratory - this is called formal sampling.

How do we take food samples?

  • All samples are taken by Sampling Officers who have been authorised under the Food Safety Act 1990 or food legislation made under the European Communities Act 1972 by the Council to carry out this function.
  • These officers are trained in sampling techniques to ensure that samples are not contaminated during the sampling process.
  • These officers will identify themselves on arrival at a food business, explain the reason for requesting a sample. Occasionally a survey may require a food sample to be taken anonymously and in these cases, the officer will only identify themselves after the sample has been taken and has been paid for.
  • The officer will note any details required for the correct examination of the sample including storage temperature, date of production etc.
  • The sample is normally taken to an approved laboratory as quickly as possible at a controlled temperature (where appropriate) that is recorded using a data logger. If not, then it is stored under controlled conditions until it can be dispatched for analysis.

Formal samples require a detailed procedure to be followed and the sampling officer would inform a business if a sample were to be taken for this purpose.

Who examines these samples?

  • The majority of samples are examined by the Public Health England Microbiology Service, which is accredited to a national standard for microbiological tests on foodstuffs.
  • Occasionally specialist approved laboratories such as the Public Analyst or specialist laboratories appointed by the Council will be used for specialist analysis or examination.
  • The Public Health England Microbiology Service produces a report identifying the presence of any illness causing organisms (e.g. Salmonella) and the levels of general bacteria contamination that may indicate cleaning, handling or processing problems.
  • Taken together these measures indicate the potential risk of a sample causing illness and the laboratory will categorise a sample as satisfactory, acceptable or unsatisfactory against nationally recognised standards.
  • Some samples may be analysed by specific laboratories e.g. formal samples by a Public Analyst appointed by the Council.
  • The Public Analyst and other specialists provide appropriate reports indicating the methods used for analysis and whether they contravene any specific standards or represent a consumer health issue. They may also indicate whether organisms are present that do not represent any public health issue but indicate quality problems are present.

What happens next?

  • We will normally inform businesses of the results of food samples as follows:

Satisfactory result

  • Within seven days of the Authority receiving the results, we will inform the business that the result was satisfactory. No further sampling will be necessary at this time.

Acceptable results

  • Within seven days we will inform the business that the result was between satisfactory and unsatisfactory categories.
  • This means the result was acceptable and we will not normally re sample at this time, but improvements should be made to achieve a satisfactory category in the future. We will offer advice on how to do this and re sample if necessary.

Unsatisfactory result

  • In this case an Authorised Officer will visit the business within seven days and inform the proprietor/manager that the sample did not meet the required standard. Appropriate action will be taken to protect consumer safety.
  • The business will be informed of the possible reasons for this result and the corrective actions that should be taken.
  • A copy or summary of the report will be provided confirming the results and that further sampling will be undertaken.
  • On receiving the re sample result, the business will be informed of satisfactory and acceptable results, but a revisit will be made should a further unsatisfactory category be obtained.

Further investigations will aim to achieve a satisfactory or acceptable result. In some instances a formal sample may be taken.

Can I complain or appeal against this action?

Yes, all enforcement activity must be in accordance with the Corporate Enforcement Policy, the relevant laws and national codes of practice or guidance. You have a right to complain about the service you receive or appeal against decisions that affect you.