Liability - Who Is In Charge When Food Is Contaminated?

Every day, millions of tons of food are harvested, produced, packaged, delivered and consumed. Sometimes, manufacturers and suppliers may fail to detect foreign objects in products in the final product. In the worst case scenario, contaminated products can cause harm to consumers and damage manufacturer reputations. So what are foreign objects in food and who is responsible when food is contaminated?

What is a foreign matter?

Any substance that is neither assigned to the product nor to the product class and is not listed in the associated declaration is defined as foreign matter. Foreign matter can be divided into three different categories:

Naturally Occurring Foreign Matter:

These are ingredients that are of natural origin but should not be present in the final product. These include, bones, seeds, fruit stalks or pits. Even if these components are clearly foreign matter, the consumer can expect them because they are of natural origin.

Non-Natural Foreign Objects:

This category covers all components that are not of natural origin. These include metal fragments, plastics, shards of glass or splinters of wood.


Pathogens are the cause of foodborne illness and can lead to serious complaints. Some pathogens are more common than others. These include Listeria, E.coli or Salmonella.

Who is responsible?

The production of food potentially consists of many steps with many different stakeholders involved. Who is held liable depends on the respective production stage in which the contamination has occurred. In principle, the following groups can be held liable:

  • Farmers and growers
  • Manufacturers
  • Packagers
  • Shippers
  • Sellers and distributers

What has to be done when contaminated food is found?

In many cases, it is the manufacturer who is held responsible. Manufacturers are more liable for non-natural foreign objects and pathogens than for naturally occurring foreign matter.

In instances where foreign bodies are found, the procedure is relatively simple: A consumer finds a foreign body in their product, they make an official complaint, the complaint reaches the manufacturer, the manufacturer checks the batch number and identifies when and where the batch was delivered. In many cases, the product is recalled and the batch is taken off the market. In the meantime, further production is stopped in order to find the cause of the contamination. Such incidents are usually easy to control because the manufacturer can trace the contamination based on the batch number. Nevertheless, such an incident can lead to high direct and in-direct costs for the manufacturer.

Much higher costs can be involved if pathogens are involved. Pathogens are dangerous to the individual, but can also lead to a major outbreak resulting in death. Once pathogens are detected, it is important to stop production, recall the appropriate batches and inform customers. Transparent information transfer is necessary to ensure that the outbreak is quickly stopped and does not spread further. If a manufacturer does not comply with the duty to inform, they can be held accountable. In addition, it is not enough to inform only about such an incident. The manufacturer must also prove that they have followed all correct procedures during production.

As a stakeholder in the food industry, you are responsible for ensuring that consumers are not harmed by your products. A manufacturer who is held responsible for such incidents can expect both high costs and a damaged reputation. Therefore, to prevent food contamination, manufacturers should introduce quality assurance measures. These include Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) that should be reviewed and approved by the FDA.