Consumer Rights and Food Safety

Yesterday two important changes in consumer and food law came into force.  These will affect the vast majority of businesses in the UK and they will have serious implications for how they do business.

I spent most of yesterday fuming at the coverage that the implementation of the Consumer Rights Act 2015 was getting in the media.  On BBC News 24, the act was described as giving consumers new and longer rights to refunds.  During the coverage consumer’s statutory rights were confused with warranties and guarantees and the so-called “expert” they dragged up had very little idea about what was a statutory right and what was an act of goodwill by a retailer.  So, in short, here is what the act does and how it affects the rights of consumers.

The highest profile change is the creation of a 30 day time limit within which consumers can reject goods if they fail to meet statutory contract terms.  Previously, consumers had a ‘reasonable time’ in which to reject goods which were not of satisfactory quality, not fit for purpose or which were misdescribed.

Now, a consumer has a 30 day period to reject if goods are not of satisfactory quality, which are not fit for purpose or which “do not meet their expectations”.  The last of these widens the interpretation of misdescribed and brings it into line with the Protection of Consumers from Unfair trading Regulations where a description can be correct but can, in certain circumstances, prove to be misleading.

The critical point about the 30 day limit is that this does not necessarily give consumers a longer right to reject.  This is particularly true in relation to complex and expensive goods.

Under the old reasonable time test, the decision as to whether the consumer complaint was timeous was down to the facts.  If you bought a simple good, such as a pair of shoes and they fell apart after a week, they would fail the reasonable durability test of satisfactory quality.  In such circumstances you would probably have had a couple of weeks to get them back to the retailer and ask for a refund.  However, if you bought a car, and it repeatedly broke down in the first three months of your ownership, you would likely retain the right to reject.

Now, whether you buy a pair of shoes, or a Rolls Royce, your right to reject is the same.  No account is taken of the potential life of the goods or their complexity.

The BBC’s ‘expert’ also praised the fact that there was a new right to reject in relation to second-hand goods and new rights in relation to services.  In one word, nonsense.

The old Sale of goods Act 1974 applied to both new and second-hand goods.  the only difference being that second-hand goods were to be treated as being of satisfactory quality when compared to goods of a similar type and age.  So it would not be unreasonable for a three-year old car to have a scratch on it or to need new tyres.

One of the strangest aspects of the new law is that the 30 day limit to reject applies to goods bought via Hire purchase and conditional sale agreements.  this is odd as in these circumstances, the goods do not belong to the consumer but to the finance provider.  Under these agreements you are effectively hiring the goods, not purchasing them.

The Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 gave consumers the right to reject a service if it was not carried out with suitable care and skill, not carried out timeously or not carried out for a reasonable cost.  These rights are retained in the new legislation, however, it now appears that you have to give a service provider a change to repair their bad work, when previously, you did not.

The new Consumer Rights Act does update consumer legislation in particular in relation to downloads and apps, where no physical product exists, but to describe the act as brining increased and longer rights to consumers in disingenuous at best.

The second, and far less publicised change to the law is the implementation of the Food Information Regulations 2014 in relation to the provision of information as to Allergens.  This applies to  pre-packed food, food sold loose from bulk and food sold by caterers, e.g. restaurants and take-aways.  Food labelling for allergen content on pre-packed food has existed for several years and there is an existing code of practice.  The allergen labelling requirements for non-pre-packed food and in caterers is new.  The minimum requirement is that menus and notices must be displayed stating that customers who have allergies or food intolerances can ask staff regarding the content of food.  Many food retailers may wish to go further and list allergens in their food.

For food sold by distance means e.g. home delivery of take-aways or via the internet, allergen information should be given at the time of order e.g. on the website or distributed menu AND when the food is delivered e.g. on a label or on the receipt.

Caterers and take-aways should also take this opportunity to ensure that information is provided to front of house staff and to delivery staff to enable them to answer consumer questions about allergens.  It would also make sense for food businesses to re-examine their procedures relating to the prevention of cross-contamination of allergenic ingredients.

In December next year, the part of the Food Information Regulations 2015 relating to nutritional labelling comes into force.  This extends the legal requirement for nutritional labelling on food from foods designed for particular nutritional purposes, e.g. diet foods, to all foods.

There have been seismic changes in the laws relating to consumer rights and food labelling in recent years.  Philmus Consulting Ltd can help you company develop processes and procedures which ensure your products and services are legally compliant.  Philmus Consulting Ltd can also help your company develop marketing strategies and plans which fit within the current consumer law environment.