Food safety

Food safety

This page gives you information regarding food safety, hygiene inspections and ratings.

Food complaints

Here you will find information regarding food complaints and contamination, and how we investigate them.

The public protection service investigates complaints regarding food and food premises. Types of complaints we investigate include:

  • foreign matter in food, i.e. glass, hair, metal
  • poor food handling practices in shops and catering premises
  • dirty conditions of food premises
  • feeling ill after eating at a local restaurant
You can report a food complaint to us by using the contact details at the bottom of this page. 

The investigation process
We will need to know:
  • when and where you purchased/ate the food. If the food was not produced locally, you may be requested to contact the trader or manufacturer, or the local authority where they are based.
  • how you stored the food since you purchased it
  • if there were any adverse effects from consuming the food
  • if you would be prepared to provide a witness statement
You may be asked to bring the purchased food to the council for us to investigate.

An officer will decide the most appropriate course of action and you may be contacted for further information, although the officer may not be able to comment on the potential outcome.

The main objective of the investigation is to prevent a recurrence and protect public health. The time taken to investigate a complaint will vary, ranging from days to many months if it’s necessary to liaise with outside bodies.

Occasionally, it may be appropriate to consider more formal action. Sufficient evidence would need to be assembled to prove the offence beyond all reasonable doubt. Even if these matters were satisfied, the council still may not pursue a prosecution unless it is satisfied the case is justified and in the public interest.

The council will not seek to obtain or negotiate compensation or redress on behalf of any complainant. If you wish to pursue a compensation claim you should talk to an independent legal advisor.
Common food complaints
Some problems with food occur naturally, and while they may appear alarming, are harmless. If you have any concerns about any suspect food, please contact us.

Grey areas in bread
Small hard drops of carbon are sometimes found in bread or cakes. These can vary in size and are usually black or grey. This is overcooked dough which has flaked off the baking tins and there is no risk to health. If there are greasier areas of grey, this will be food-safe grease from food manufacturing equipment, which may occasionally contaminate the dough. We would advise you to contact the manufacturer.
 
Whitish coating on chocolate
If chocolate is stored at too high a temperature, fats within the chocolate separate and form a 'bloom' on the surface. This may look like mould, but is completely harmless.

Red/pink colouration of cooked chicken
Sometimes a pink, brown or reddish colouring of poultry meat may occur giving the meat an undercooked appearance. This can be due to myoglobin pigment, which is found in muscle fibres and may appear near to the bone, leading people to believe the meat has not been cooked through. Uncooked meat has a more translucent appearance and the fibres break less easily than cooked meat. Uncooked areas will change colour when cooked further.
 
Cardamom pods in pilau rice
Cardamom pods come from a plant species native to India and south-eastern Asia. The pod is a small capsule with brown seeds which is commonly used as a spice, and is often used whole to flavour pilau rice. Cardamom pods are sometimes mistaken by members of the public as rodent droppings.
 
Spiders in bananas
Spiders can come to Britain in fruit, vegetables and other products from tropical and subtropical regions. The huntsman or giant crab spiders have flattened bodies that enable them to fit into small crevices. They are harmless, but a large one can deliver a painful bite if carelessly handled. In the unlikely event you are bitten, contact a doctor.
 
Stones in canned peas
During harvesting, small stones can be accidentally collected and missed during the sorting process. As long as the manufacturer can show all reasonable precautions were taken to try to stop this from happening, it is accepted a number of these complaints will occur.
 
Mushroom fibres
Sometimes we get complaints about hairs in food such as pizza. Often these 'hairs' turn out to be mushroom fibres. Sometimes, fibres can remain with the mushroom during preparation and cooking, and can look like a coarse hair once cooked.
Common food complaints about fish
Due to the nature of the food and the processes involved, the following complaints are sometimes unavoidable and would not usually result in us taking any formal action. However, if you have concerns about any suspect food, please do not hesitate to contact us.

I have opened a can of fish and it looks like there is broken glass inside.
If we look at these ‘glass crystals’ more closely when dry, they look more like opaque crystals with dull edges. These could be struvite crystals. This is a chemical that can form during the canning process of some seafood including mackerel, salmon and tuna.

Occasionally this chemical can form into crystals which can be large enough to be visible and cause concern, as they may resemble broken glass. You can tell the difference between struvite and glass by doing simple tests at home:
  • Struvite crystals are softer than glass and can be scratched or crushed between two hard surfaces into a powder.
  • They are soluble in a hot dilution of vinegar (or lemon juice) and water.
Struvite crystals are harmless, and occur in many foods. The formation of struvite cannot be prevented completely. The crystals are easily digested, do not smell or taste and are too soft to do any harm. 
 
I have bought fish and chips and have found a worm in the fish.
Fish are commonly affected by parasitic round worms, which can be white, grey, cream or brown in colour. They are usually removed by gutting. However, sometimes the worms can be found in the flesh of the fish. There is no evidence to suggest the worm causes illness in humans, and they are killed by cooking or freezing. The percentage of fish infected is very small. 

As these harmless worms are naturally found in fish and are difficult to spot in a raw fish, there is little legal action that can be taken. We suggest you take the fish back to the shop. They are not obliged to give you a refund. However, most businesses would be concerned to find you are unsatisfied and will try to resolve the problem. 

I have bought filleted fish fingers (which claim to be boneless) and found a bone.
Fish naturally contain bones. While the manufacturers take every care to remove bones, a few may remain due to the way fish fingers are manufactured. As long as the manufacturer has taken all reasonable steps to remove the bones, then no formal action can be taken. Note that certain bones may resemble plastic.
 
I have bought some prawns and they glow when I turn the light off.
Prawns, crabs, fish and other seafood can sometimes appear to glow in the dark with a greenish-white light. This can be very alarming but is due to naturally-occurring luminous bacteria. Light is produced by a reaction with a substance in the bacteria, oxygen and water, similar to the reaction which makes fireflies glow. We recommend you take the food back to the shop where you bought it.
Common food complaints about insects
The following is a list of food complaints that tend to be unavoidable due to farming methods, the nature of the food and the subsequent processes, so would not usually result in us taking any action.

I have opened a jar of jam and found an insect inside.
Wasps or fruit flies attracted to ripe fruits sometimes accidentally become included in the product during harvesting. A small number of these insects can be missed during manufacturing. They are harmless, but we advise you to contact the manufacturer.
 
I have opened a tin of tomatoes and found a maggot inside.
Small grubs can sometimes be found in tinned vegetables. They can be quite long (3-4cm), greenish brown to cream in colour with dark bands. These can look like maggots or caterpillars but they are moth larvae. They live inside the food and are difficult to spot when the vegetable is being grown or processed. There are limits on the amount of pesticide residues in food, so there isn't much more the industry can do to stop this. The larvae are killed and sterilised during the canning process and are harmless. These larvae can also be found in frozen vegetables.

I have found some small grey specks in my flour/sugar and they appear to be moving.
These are psocids, commonly known as booklice. They are tiny insects often associated with packaged dry goods such as flour, milk powder, sugar and semolina. Psocids can be found living in food cupboards, wall crevices and kitchen units. They are associated with dark, warm, humid places and are not caused by poor hygiene or the shop/manufacturer. They are harmless, but if you find them you can take the following actions to get rid of them and prevent them coming back:
  • Throw away all infected food.
  • Use a dry cloth to clean the cupboard.
  • Dry the joints in the cupboard using a hairdryer.
  • Keep your kitchen and cupboards as dry and ventilated as possible.
Ensure once opened, dried food is stored in a clean airtight container.
Food complaints - contact us
If you have purchased food you are not satisfied with, or have concerns about a food premises, please telephone the public protection service on 01670 623870 or email public.protection@northumberland.gov.uk

Food & allergy alerts

This section gives you information regarding food and allergy alerts.

Food alerts
Food alerts are the Food Standards Agency's way of letting local authorities and consumers know about problems associated with food and, in some cases, give details of action to be taken.

They are issued under two categories:
  • food alerts: for action
  • food alerts: for information
Communicable disease control and food trade organisations are also alerted about current food issues. They’re often issued in conjunction with a product withdrawal or recall by a manufacturer, retailer or distributor. Their website also provides details of how you can register to receive automatic email notifications of new food alerts. You can also get food alert details sent direct to your mobile phone. Again, information is provided on the FSA’s website.
Allergy alerts
Sometimes foods have to be withdrawn or recalled if there is a risk to consumers because the allergy labelling is missing, incorrect or if there is any other food allergy risk.

In such situations, the agency will issue an allergy alert. These can be viewed on the Food Standards Agency website. It is also possible to subscribe to the email and text system via the agency website.

Food poisoning advice

Here you will find information regarding food poisoning and action to take if you have any symptoms.

Certain infectious diseases are notifiable to the health authority and can be investigated. We may investigate food poisoning and certain other food-borne illnesses.

The aim of an investigation is to prevent the spread of illness and to establish possible causes. Advice is also given to the patient on how to prevent the spread of disease.

About food-borne illness & food poisoning
Many different sorts of bacteria can cause food-borne illness. When food is kept warm, these bacteria can grow rapidly and reach dangerous levels within hours. The number of cases of food-borne illness has increased dramatically during the past few years, particularly during the summer months. Good food hygiene standards in industry, and the home, are vital to prevent illness.

The incubation period (time taken from eating the food to feeling unwell) varies with each type of organism, and in some cases can be up to 10 to 15 days after consumption of the food. It is important to realise, therefore, that the last meal you ate may not be the cause of your symptoms. The main symptoms include diarrhoea, stomach cramps, vomiting and fever.

We are all at risk, but young children, the elderly, pregnant women and those with a pre-existing illness can quickly become very ill when infected.

The main causes of food poisoning and food-borne illness are:
  • preparing foods too far in advance
  • not cooking foods properly
  • not defrosting foods correctly
  • storing foods incorrectly (i.e. too warm) so bacteria can grow quickly
  • cross contamination of foods after cooking
  • infection from people handling foods due to poor hygiene
What to do if you have symptoms of food-borne illness
Food-borne illness can spread quickly, partly because everyone in the family could have eaten the same food and partly because the bacteria may be picked up by close contact (e.g. nursing the sick). Viruses can also cause illness similar to food poisoning and also spread quickly.

If you suspect you are suffering food poisoning, it is recommended you visit your doctor as soon as possible, who might ask you to submit a sample for examination.

Faecal samples are useful as they might be able to show which food-borne illness you are suffering from, or could rule out a food-poisoning organism. Viruses can also be detected. Consult your doctor immediately if the person affected is a baby, elderly or has an existing illness or condition, or if symptoms are prolonged or severe (e.g. bloody diarrhoea).

If you, or a member of your family, are suffering from the symptoms of food poisoning, it is recommended you follow the advice below to try and prevent the spread of the illness:
  • Wash your hands after contact with the sick person, and before handling food.
  • Do not use the same towel or face cloth as someone who is suffering with food-borne illness.
  • Disinfect door and toilet handles, taps and the toilet seat after use, and disinfect the toilet bowl frequently.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration while you are ill.
  • Clear up soiling accidents straight away. Wash with hot soapy water and disinfect with a disinfectant or bleach.
Top 10 tips to reduce food-borne illness
  1. Wash hands thoroughly before handling food and always after handling raw meat, going to the toilet, blowing your nose or handling animals (including pets).
  2. Keep food preparation surfaces and utensils clean and disinfected (e.g. with anti-bacterial spray).
  3. Prepare and store raw meat and 'ready-to-eat' food separately. Always keep raw and defrosting meat at the base of the refrigerator, below everything else.
  4. Ensure your refrigerator and freezer are operating properly. Invest in a suitable thermometer. The refrigerator should operate at 5°C or lower and the freezer at -18°C or lower.
  5. Check the 'use by' dates on food and ensure you use the food before the date expires.
  6. Always store eggs in the refrigerator and do not eat food containing uncooked eggs.
  7. Keep pets away from food and food preparation surfaces.
  8. Defrost food, particularly meat and poultry, thoroughly before cooking.
  9. Cook food thoroughly. Follow the manufacturers' guidelines and ensure food is piping hot throughout before consumption.
  10. Cool food immediately after cooking and never allow it to be at room temperature for more than four hours. Always store leftover food in the refrigerator as soon as it has cooled to room temperature.
Further information
For further information regarding food poisoning and other infectious diseases, please click here.

Food hygiene rating scheme

Northumberland County Council takes part in the Food Standards Agency's (FSA's) national food hygiene rating scheme.

Local food businesses are inspected to ensure all food is handled and prepared safely. After a premises has been inspected, an overall number rating from zero (the worst) to five (the best) is awarded, based on food safety standards at the time of the inspection.


Three areas are assessed with regard to compliance with food law:

  • food hygiene
  • structure and cleanliness
  • confidence in management
The rating does not reflect the quality of food or the standard of service provided to customers.

The extent of the food hygiene rating scheme
The food hygiene rating scheme extends to most food businesses direct to the customer, including: 
  • restaurants and cafés
  • pubs
  • takeaways
  • mobile food vehicles
  • market stalls
  • hotels
  • bed and breakfast premises
  • food retailers 
The aim of the scheme is to help consumers make a choice about where they eat or buy food.
Exempt or excluded businesses
For some registered food businesses, the food element or activity is not the main part of that business. They will generally not be regarded as a food business by consumers and will be exempt from the scheme. They include, for example: 
  • visitor centres (or similar) selling tins of biscuits or other wrapped foods among a range of other goods
  • leisure centres with only food vending machines selling only drinks or low-risk foods
  • chemist shops selling pre-packed confectionery and/or health foods 
Certain businesses, such as childminders operating from private addresses, are also exempt. Home caterers will not have their addresses published.
 
Some businesses do not supply food direct to consumers and these will not be scored under the scheme. This includes: 
  • farms
  • manufacturers and packers
  • importers and exporters
  • distributors (including wholesalers and other inter-business suppliers) and transporters 
Where wholesalers are supplying food direct to consumers as well as to other businesses, they fall within the definition of scope and will be scored.
 
During the inspection, the officer will advise the operator if it appears the premises is exempt or excluded from the scheme. Where a mobile food vehicle trades outside Northumberland's area, the operator will be advised that the scoring will be determined by another authority.
New food businesses
A new food establishment will receive an inspection once it has registered with us, and will appear on the food hygiene rating scheme site as ‘awaiting inspection’. Any existing rating relating to any previous food business at the premises will be suspended until the new inspection is completed. New businesses will be scored at first inspection unless any exemptions apply.
 
Where there is a change in food business operator, the establishment will be registered and treated as new, and a new score will be given at the first inspection. In cases where there is solely a change to the name of the establishment, but the food business operator is the same, a new certificate will be issued in the new name but a new score will not be given.
 
In cases where the food business operator moves to new premises, the new establishment will be registered by the appropriate local authority and a new score given at the first inspection. 
How are food businesses scored?
The rating is calculated by taking into account three elements of the inspection.
  1. hygiene - level of (current) compliance with food hygiene and safety procedures (including food handling practices, procedures and temperature control)
  2. structure - level of (current) compliance with structural requirements (including cleanliness, layout, condition of structure, lighting, ventilation, facilities etc.)
  3. confidence in management and control procedures
Each of these elements is scored between zero and 25. The lower the score, the better the standard achieved. These scores are then 'mapped' to the relevant tier of the food hygiene rating scheme as shown in the table below:
 
Mapping of numerical scores from the intervention-rating scheme at Annex 5 of the Food Law Code of Practice to the six FHRS food hygiene ratings
Food Hygiene rating scheme table
Please note: The hygiene rating score is based on both the total score and the lowest single score.
 
The position of the food business will drop down the banding to the maximum level at which the additional scoring factor is permitted, e.g. for a second-tier establishment where there is an individual score of 15, the establishment would drop down to the fourth tier.
 
Food hygiene rating - right of appeal
Once you have been notified, you will have 14 days in which to appeal if you feel your rating is unjust. The food business operator is encouraged to contact the inspecting officer in the first instance.

If the matter cannot be resolved, a formal appeal may be lodged with the senior environmental health officer within the commercial team, by submitting a completed copy of the food hygiene rating scheme appeal form.

When an appeal has been lodged, the outcome has to be decided within seven days. Until the appeal has been decided, the rating will not be published on the website. 
Request a food safety hygiene rating revisit
As the food business operator of the establishment, you have a right to request a revisit for the purposes of re-rating if you have taken action to rectify the non-compliances identified at the time of inspection.

You can make one request for a revisit per each planned statutory inspection by the local authority. You can make this at any time after the statutory inspection, provided you have made the required improvements.
 
To make a request for a revisit, please submit a completed copy of the food hygiene rating scheme revisit request form and return to the public protection team.
Provision of food hygiene rating stickers
All businesses which are within the scheme will be issued with window stickers. It is not currently against the law if a business does not display the sticker, but it is possiblethis could change in the future. Certificates are no longer issued as part of the scheme.

Food hygiene rating scheme FAQs

Here you will find frequently asked questions regarding the food hygiene rating scheme.

What is a hygiene rating?
A hygiene rating shows how a food business is meeting the requirements of food hygiene laws after an inspection. It is this rating that will create the score for the food hygiene rating scheme.

We look at:
  • how hygienically the food is handled - how it is stored, prepared, cooked, re-heated, and cooled
  • the condition of the structure of the food premises - the cleanliness, layout, lighting, ventilation and other facilities
  • how the business manages and records what it does to make sure food is safe
As part of the food hygiene rating scheme, at the end of the inspection, the business will be given one of six ratings based on the above criteria. These are set out below:

5 - very good
4 - good
3 - generally satisfactory
2 - improvements necessary
1 - major improvement necessary
0 - urgent improvement necessary
I own a food business, will it be inspected?
The scheme is aimed at premises supplying food directly to consumers, including restaurants, pubs, cafés, takeaways, mobile traders and other places where consumers eat.

Places where public access is limited but where food is prepared, cooked or handled and served, such as schools, hospitals and care homes will also be included, as will retail shops and supermarkets.

Your business will be inspected and all businesses included within the scheme will be issued with a score between zero and five (five being the best). Following the inspection, you will be told in writing either at the time or within 14 days what your food hygiene rating is.

A new rating is given each time the business is inspected by a food safety officer, and the greater the risk rating the more frequently the business is inspected.

If a new business has been set up, or there is a new owner, it will not have a food hygiene rating to begin with but it may display a sticker that says 'awaiting inspection'. A rating will only be given after an officer has inspected the business to check hygiene standards.
What happens after a food business gets its rating?
The food hygiene rating score awarded to premises will be published on the food hygiene rating scheme website and a sticker will be given to the premises showing the score awarded.

Businesses are not required to display their rating, although a higher rating is a good advertisement for businesses.
What can the owner of a business do if they think the rating given is unfair or wrong?
The owner or manager of the business should discuss the rating with the food safety officer who inspected the business. The officer should explain why the rating was given and provide ways for the business to improve its rating. The scheme does have some safeguards for businesses so as to be fair and transparent.
Why are businesses with poor ratings not closed down?
Businesses given ratings of '0' or '1' must make urgent or major improvements to their hygiene standards. The food safety officer will use enforcement tools as well as giving guidance to ensure improvements are made.

If the officer findsa business's hygiene standards are very poor and there is an imminent risk to health, the officer will take action to make sure consumers are protected. This could mean prohibiting part of its operation or closing the business down. This is quite unusual, as we aim to support good standards within our area.

We always try to educate and advise before taking formal action. Food premises are subject to visits at 'any reasonable time' from food safety officers.
Can a revisit/re-inspection be planned to get a new rating?
Yes, but only if the improvements have been made to hygiene after the last inspection. The owner or manager of the food business can only ask the council once for another inspection before the date of the next planned inspection.

Premises are automatically given a new food hygiene rating each time the business is inspected. The frequency of these planned inspections depends on the rating. The greater the risk, the more often premises are inspected.

If improvements are made to hygiene standards after the last inspection, a revisit can be requested to occur before the next planned inspection. This gives an opportunity for standards to be reassessed with a view to giving a new and higher food hygiene rating to that premises. A rating may also remain the same or drop.
How can a revisit be requested?
You should put your request in writing on the appropriate form to the food safety team. You will be given the contact details when you are notified about your rating. You are recommended to look carefully at the comments the food safety officer made at your last inspection and make sure you have taken action to address issues raised. You can discuss anything you are unsure about with your food safety officer or ask for advice on how to improve.

This is important because you can only have one revisit between the council's planned inspections of your premises. The officer will look at standards generally - not just at the specific areas you have been working to improve - so your hygiene rating could drop. Usually, the revisit will not take place in the first three months following the inspection.

You must explain what actions you have taken on the issues raised at your last inspection, including supporting evidence. If the request is refused, you will be given an explanation and advice on action to take. If you do not agree with the council's decision to refuse your request, you can raise the matter with the lead officer for food. If you cannot resolve matters, you can use the complaints procedure for your council, details of which may be found on the authority's website.

If you make your request later than three months after your initial inspection, you may expect a revisit within three months but you will not be told a specific date and time, as food hygiene inspections will be 'unannounced'.
Can a rating be appealed against?
It is a good idea to firstly speak informally to the food safety officer that inspected your premises. This will help you understand how your rating was worked out and may resolve the matter without having to appeal.

You must lodge your appeal in writing (or by email) within 14 days of being notified of your rating. If you think the rating is wrong or unfair, or it does not reflect the hygiene standards at the time of inspection, you can appeal.

To appeal, you should complete the appeal form which is available here, and send this to your council's lead officer for food. If you lodge an appeal, the information will show your food hygiene rating is 'awaiting publication'.

Your case will be reviewed (in some cases, a further visit to your premises may be required) and you will be notified of the result within seven days from the date the appeal was lodged and your hygiene rating will be published on the Food Standards Agency website.

If you don’t agree with the outcome of the appeal, you can challenge the council's decision by judicial review and should seek the advice of a solicitor.
What is the 'right to reply'?
The owner or manager of the business has a 'right to reply'. This lets the business explain any actions they have taken after inspection to improve standards, or explain any unusual circumstances at the time of inspection that might have affected the rating. It is not an opportunity to complain or criticise the food hygiene rating scheme or food safety officer.

Send your comments to the food safety officer in writing (or email) using the 'right to reply' form available to download here. You will be given the contact details for the officer when you are notified about your rating.

There is no deadline for this, so you can submit your 'right to reply' at any time up until your next inspection, when you will get a new food hygiene rating.

Your council may edit your comments in order to remove any offensive, defamatory, clearly inaccurate or irrelevant remarks. Other than that, what you say in your 'right to reply' will be published online with your hygiene rating on the Food Standards Agency website.
How can I give feedback on the scheme?
You can contact our public protection department via email to public.protection@northumberland.gov.uk or write to:

Commercial Team, Public Health Protection Unit
Northumberland Fire & Resuce Service
Northumberland County Council
West Hartford Fire Station
West Hartford Buisness Park
Cramlington
Northumberland
NE23 3JP

If you would like to submit comments to the Food Standards Agency, please email hygieneratings@foodstandards.gsi.gov.uk or telephone 020 7276 8435. Write to the following address:

Food Hygiene Ratings Team
Aviation House
125 Kingsway
London WC2B 6HN
More information