Jam-jars: the last word

Recent web usage statistics reveal that visitors to the site have been searching for material on re-use of jam-jars and looking at earlier posts which (like some of the jam) have passed their sell-by date.

This post consolidates the relevant material from earlier ones – which have now been removed.

When the Churches’ Legislation Advisory Service first contacted the Food Standards Agency after an enquiry from one of its members about the legality of reusing jam-jars, the FSA replied that though it was legal to re-use jam-jars at home and for private gifts to friends, it was not permitted under the terms of Article 3 of the Food Contact Material Regulations EC 1935/2004 to re-use them for food that was to be “placed on the market”: that is, sold or even given away at a public event such as a church fête or charity bazaar.

The result was a lot of press comment and various statements and counter-statements, not all of them entirely consistent with one another. The European Commission’s Representation in the United Kingdom got particularly heated, with a piece entitled In a jam over non-existent EU rules which conceded that there was indeed “a body of EU food safety and hygiene legislation” but contended that it did not apply to “charity events such as church fetes or school bazaars” and dismissed the whole thing as yet another piece of ignorant Euro-bashing. To which the obvious response is that perhaps the EC’s Representation in the UK could usefully have talked to the FSA.

On 22 October 2012 Anna Soubry, a junior minister at the Department of Health (not, it should be noted, at the Department of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs), published the following response to a Commons Written Question from John Spellar: To ask the Secretary of State for Health what the Government’s policy is on the re-use of jam jars by individuals; and if he will make a statement. [123376]

 “We are advised by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) that there is European Union legislation in place, that applies to food businesses, that are designed to protect consumers from the migration of materials that may be used in the manufacture of containers used to store food. These rules do not apply to subsequent re-use by individuals. The FSA is not aware of any evidence that reusing jam jars presents a food safety concern for consumers in terms of materials which may migrate from jam jars into food. Separately, good hygiene needs to be observed in cleaning jars and food preparation. It is for local authorities to decide how they enforce the rules with respect to charities and the like. The FSA’s view is that the legislation needs to be applied with common sense and it is clear that local authorities are doing so. The FSA is not aware of any prosecutions for reusing glass jars for jam making since the legislation was introduced in 2004”.

Nothing in Ms Soubry’s reply appeared to contradict the position in the original Circular from the Churches’ Legislation Advisory Service:

  • there is EU legislation that applies to re-use of food packaging materials (including jam-jars) by “food businesses” (however defined) though not by individuals;
  • it appears to forbid re-use except by individuals purely for private use;
  • precisely what constitutes a “food business” is not entirely clear; and
  • enforcement is a matter for local authorities.

However, given the somewhat confusing responses of the Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health to various queries from the media and questions in Parliament, the Churches’ Legislation Advisory Service then wrote to the new Chief Executive of the FSA, Catherine Brown, asking for a considered, definitive statement of the position. The substance of her reply is as follows:

“There is a minimal, theoretical risk that a Local Authority could seek to enforce the regulations on food contact materials against an individual or organisation selling preserves in reused jam jars for charitable objectives. In order to do so, the Local Authority would need to decide that the individual or organisation constituted a “food business”.

The Food Standards Agency position on this remains … that there is very small or no risk associated with the responsible reuse of clean jam jars, and that the FSA are not aware of any local authority taking action against an individual or church organisation re-using jam jars for charitable purposes.

In terms of your request for a formal statement, I know from your letter and your comment on the European Union representation observation that you appreciate that there is a limit to the clarity that can be formally given in this area. I hope the following is of some help.

There is no intention on the part of the Food Standards Agency to over-regulate or prevent the very good work undertaken by church volunteers or other charities and organisations such as the Women’s Institute.

The regulations on food contact materials and the EU hygiene rules apply mainly to businesses, not to private individuals. New domestic enforcement regulations relating to contact materials, which come into force on 20 November, make this clearer.

General food law, which includes a requirement not to place unsafe food on the market could apply to private individuals or to organisations that are not businesses. lt is for this reason that we stress the importance of hygiene; for example we would suggest that if jam jars are re-used they should be free from chips and cracks, sterilised and with good-fitting lids, so as to minimise any hygiene risks to the food they contain.

 We consider it unlikely that any local authority will take action against the reuse of jam jars but if there are people who remain concerned, they could contact their local authority and seek reassurance. I am confident that they will find that the common sense approach which has been taken to this issue for a number of years, in discussion with organisations such as churches, local Wls and country fairs, will continue.”

Comment: The conclusion seems to be this:

  • the matter continues to be governed by EU law which is cast in very general terms;
  • the Food Standards Agency cannot simply declare that that law does not apply to private individuals;
  • enforcement remains a matter for local authorities; and
  • it is now extremely unlikely that any local authority would seek to prosecute an individual purely for selling or giving away preserves bottled in a re-used jam-jar.

In short, the general reaction to the original news seems to have removed any threat of enforcement even though the EU rules themselves have not changed.

As stated in our General Terms and Conditions, at L&RUK we do not give legal or technical advice, or purport to do so. For specific queries on the application of the legislation and the associated practical issues, professional advice should be sought from the competent authorities and practitioners in this area.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Jam-jars: the last word" in Law & Religion UK, 30 November 2012, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2012/11/30/jam-jars-the-last-word/