One of the first recorded incidents of product liability, which resulted in compensation, involved a case of potential food poisoning caused by neglect of care in 1932 in Scotland.
However, although health and safety legislation improvements have brought about much higher standards for consumers, there are still frequent instances where producers of food or drink have been prosecuted.
Among the improvements since the second world war have been the higher standards of hygiene in factories where there is mass manufacture of food and drink products, most of which involve packaging in order to protect the contents from germs and keep them safe for consumption for as long as possible.
A variety of wrappings are used, depending on which is most suitable for the longevity of the food and method of storage, and they can be made from materials including plastic, aluminium foil, steel and paper or card.
Once sealed in the appropriate container, the food will then be labelled with a description of the contents. There is also likely to be information about the dietary value of the food and a 'best before' date.
This date will give the consumer some idea of when the food may become less palatable but is unlikely to be dangerous to eat, because of bacteria which have started to multiply within the package, although common sense must be used to judge whether the item is fit for consumption.
Pre-packed food with a 'BBE' date on it can include almost any type of food capable of preservation using modern methods, such as canning, freezing, drying and heat-treating. In most instances, staff at supermarkets and other food shops will keep a careful check on the dates printed on the packs and remove any which are close to expiry.
A 'best-before' date is only advisory as far as a shopper is concerned but a use by' date is more definite and should be adhered to by all staff and potential buyers of the product.
'Use by' can be found on fresh items such as packed bread and cakes or meat items. These have a far shorter shelf life than those which use the 'best before' designation, and are far more susceptible to acting as a breeding ground for germs which can cause food poisoning.
Manufacturers have developed the use-by system to protect consumers from possible ill health and they are supported by shop management and staff who regularly check if food is still viable.
Although some critics of the system suggest it is overly cautious and that food remains fit to eat once past its sell-by date, most consumers prefer the assurance of knowing that old and possibly contaminated food will not be available for sale.
If shops are neglectful of checking for out of date produce, they may find themselves liable for any harm caused to someone who has eaten or drunk the product. Inspectors employed by local authorities make frequent checks to see that stores are complying with safety regulations and this can include stock rotation.
Prosecution by the council can result should a trader be found selling out of date food, including items sold in cafes, pubs and restaurants either as packaged or when they become ingredients for a meal.
Food poisoning can come from many different sources and not everyone who contracts it will be sufficiently ill to warrant a complaint or compensation payment but elderly people, children, and those with a compromised immune system are particularly at risk of developing a long-term illness or even dying after eating bacteria-laden food.
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