Common food complaints

Common food complaints

Finding there is a problem with your food can be a very unpleasant experience, however, there may be simple steps you can take to resolve the issue yourself.

This guide to common food complaints provides information on routine food issues, how they occur and suggests how best to deal with them.

It should allow you to help yourself in many circumstances and let our food safety officers concentrate on more serious reports that pose a potential risk to public health.

Issues covered include:

  • general issues (hair in food and mould)
  • baked goods
  • canned food

If you are unable to resolve an issue using the self-help information provided, or the information instructs you to, please email the food safety team.

General issues

Hair in food

The presence of hair in food can be an indication of poor food hygiene practices.

Action:  If you believe that you have found human hair in food please email us to report it.

Mould (general)

Mould may grow for a number of reasons including if a product is out of date or has been stored for too long at the wrong temperature. 

Please check the label for instructions about:

  • the use by date
  • how to store the product correctly
  • how long a product should be stored after it is opened

Mould growth may not always be the fault of the manufacturer or shop you bought it from.

Action:  Affected foods should not be consumed.  You may contact the shop you bought it from or manufacturer.


Mould in juice and food cartons

Cardboard juice and food cartons may become dented and damaged if poorly handled during distribution and storage.  This damage can cause small holes to occur in the seams of the carton.

The holes allow air to enter the carton causing mould to grow in the food or juice inside.

The holes are difficult to detect, and it is only upon opening the carton that the mould is discovered.  It is difficult to establish who is responsible for this type of damage to cardboard juice and food cartons.

Action:  Affected foods should not be consumed.  Contact the manufacturer or shop you bought it from.

Baked goods

Bakery char

Bread and cakes may contain irregular shaped bits of overcooked dough which have flaked off bakery tins. If the flakes or drops find their way into the dough they can be mistaken for rodent droppings. 

You can tell the difference because rodent droppings are black and torpedo shaped, while bakery char would be uneven in shape.

Action:  This is not a public health risk.  You may contact the shop you bought it from or manufacturer to discuss.

Carbonised grease in bread, cakes or pizza

The machinery used to produce these products are lubricated with a non-toxic vegetable oil.  Occasionally some may become incorporated into the dough giving areas of the product a grey/greasy appearance and you may suspect there is dirt or oil in the food.

Action:  This is not a public health risk.  You may contact the shop you bought it from or manufacturer.

Canned food


Dented, damaged or incorrectly processed cans may allow mould growth to occur.  This can indicate an error in production and poor handling during storage and distribution.  It is difficult to establish who is responsible for this type of damage to canned foods. 

Action: Do not eat the food.  Although it does not look good there is very little we can do with this type of complaint.  It is best to return the affected food to the shop you bought it from or manufacturer.

White spots in tinned grapefruit

Sometimes, tinned grapefruit can be covered in white spots that look like mould and the liquid in the tin may be cloudy. 

This is a natural part of the grapefruit called naringin, which gives the fruit its bitter taste.

Changes in the weather can cause an increase in the amount of naringin that the fruit contains and when canned, this extra naringin crystalizes.

Action: The product is safe to eat. You may contact the manufacturer but there is no public health risk.

Glass-like crystals in canned fish (struvite)

Certain naturally occurring elements commonly found in fish may develop into hard crystals during the canning process.  They are a harmless compound of magnesium ammonium phosphate.  It is especially common in canned salmon.  These crystals may be mistaken for glass fragments and are called struvite.  They are not harmful and will be broken down by stomach acids when swallowed.

Action:  Crush the matter between 2 spoons, if it is struvite the crystals it will turn into a powder.  There is no public health risk, and the product can be eaten as normal.  If the crystal does not crush, then it could be glass and you should contact us for advice.

Insects, wasps and fruit flies

Insects that live naturally in fields may be harvested along with fruit and vegetables.  Whilst food companies take steps to remove these insects, some will slip through the net.  These insects and grubs are killed and sterilised by the canning process.

Action:  Although it is unpleasant to find insects in your food there is no public health risk.  You may contact the shop you bought it from and/or manufacturer using the details on the can.

Larvae or grubs

Small grubs are often found in canned vegetables, particularly tomatoes and sweetcorn.  Their colour is often cream to greenish brown with long dark and pale bands, but this is variable.  They can be up to 4cm in length.  People sometimes mistake them for maggots or caterpillars.  These are moth larvae that live inside the food and are difficult to see during growing and processing.  The larvae are killed and sterilised by the canning process, so they are not a health risk.  Every effort is made to control these pests while crops are growing.  They may be found in a food as the use of pesticides in food crops has decreased and there is an increase in the use of organic produce, where crops are not sprayed with any chemicals.

Action:  Although unpleasant to find a grub in the food, there is no public health risk.  You may contact the manufacturer.


During harvesting, sometimes small stones can be accidentally collected too.  Stones of certain size, weight and appearance can be missed during the sorting process.  Provided the manufacturer can show that all reasonable precautions were taken to try to stop this from happening, it is accepted that a number of these complaints will occur.

Action: There is no public health risk.  If you have damaged a tooth or cut your mouth as a result of stones in food, we cannot act on your behalf in these matters.  You may contact the manufacturer and also seek legal advice.

Chocolate and sweets


Chocolate may develop a light-coloured bloom if stored at too high a temperature.  It is not mould but due to fat separation within the product and it is not harmful.

Action:  You may contact the shop you bought it from or manufacturer.  There is no public health risk.


Large crystals may form in sweets and may be mistaken for glass.  The crystals will dissolve in warm water.

Action:  You should test with warm water if the crystals dissolve, there is no public health risk.  You may return the product to the shop you bought it from or manufacturer.  If the crystals do not dissolve, there may be a public health risk, please email us to report this and the food safety team will investigate.

Dried food


Insects like beetles and weevils may infest dried products such as flour, sugar, milk powder, semolina and pulses if they are stored for too long.  These insects to do carry disease, but they breed very quickly in warm, humid conditions and spread into uncontaminated food very quickly.

Action: These insects are not a public health risk.  Do not use an insecticide because of the danger of contaminating your food but dispose of all visibly infected packages in an outside waste bin.  Thoroughly clean the cupboards using a vacuum cleaner paying particular attention to crevices and the edges of shelves.  Immediately afterwards, empty the vacuum cleaner into an outside waste bin.  Store new dried goods in airtight containers and ensure good ventilation of storage areas.

Small insects in flour (psocids)

Psocids are very small grey or brown insects which are occasionally found in dry foods like flour, milk powder, sugar, semolina etc and because of this you may see them in your kitchen cupboards too.  They are harmless insects about 1-2mm long, which can survive in dry powdery goods.  They are not due to poor hygiene.  They prefer dark, warm, humid places and can be found in the folds of food packaging in kitchen cupboards.  They eat a wide variety of dried products such as flour, cereals and the microscopic moulds that develop in humid conditions.  They live for about six months, during which time they can lay up to 100 eggs.  They breed very quickly and so spread into uncontaminated food very quickly.

Action:  There is not public health risk.  Do not use an insecticide, discard all affected food and thoroughly clean the storage cupboard.  Store new dried food in airtight containers.


Glowing fish (luminous marine bacteria)

Luminous bacteria can sometimes be found on seafood such as crabmeat, cooked shrimps, prawns, or processed seafood products made from Surimi.  This suggests that the seafood was held for a time at a temperature that allowed the bacteria to grow.  When seafood glows, it means that luminous bacteria are present.  The light is produced by a reaction with a substance in the bacteria and oxygen and water.  It does not mean that the seafood is unsafe or of low quality.  There are no reports of illness from luminous marine bacteria growing on seafood, and they are not radioactive.

Action:  You may contact the shop you bought it from or manufacturer.  There is no public health risk.

Cod worm

White fish such as cod or haddock may be infested with small, round brownish-yellow worms found in the flesh.  These worms are known scientifically as phocanema decipiens.

There is no evidence that anyone has ever had an illness associated with cod worm.  The worms are killed by the cooking and freezing process and are harmless.  The affected parts of the fish are usually cut away but occasionally some may be missed in fresh fish and a worm may be discovered alive.  This may be alarming to see though the worms are harmless if consumed.  The incidence of infected fish is very small in relation to the thousands of tonnes of fish landed each year.

Action:  You may contact the shop you bought it from or supplier.  There is no public health risk.

Fish bones

Fish naturally contain bones.  Whilst the manufacturers take every care to remove these bones, in products such as fish fingers and other processed fish products a few may remain due to the way that the products are manufactured.  Bones from a certain part of the fish may resemble a piece of plastic, being broad, flat and flexible in appearance.  Provided that the manufacturer has taken all reasonable steps to remove the bones, then we cannot take formal action.

Action:  You may contact the shop you bought it from, supplier or manufacturer.  There is no public health risk.

Sea lice

Sea lice refers to several species of parasitic copepods that are commonly found on fish in the marine environment.  They have been found in salmon, stickleback, herring and rainbow trout.  The lice usually fall off or are cleaned off during harvesting or processing.

Action:  Sea lice do not affect human health.  There is no public health risk.

Fruit and vegetables

Stones, soil and slugs

Fruit and vegetable commonly have soil, stones or small slugs and snails adhering to them.  This is quite normal as they originate in the soil.  These can even be found in prewashed vegetables.

Action:  You should wash all fruit and vegetables thoroughly before eating them.  There is no public health risk.


Salad vegetables (especially lettuce) may have greenfly attached.  Greenfly are not harmful and can be difficult to wash off salad vegetables.  They are becoming more common as the use of pesticides decreases.

Action:  Wash all salad items thoroughly.  There is no public health risk.


Mould growth will naturally occur when fruit and vegetables become damaged and bruised, or if stored for too long.

Action:  Do not consume mouldy fruit or vegetables.  Check produce before you purchase it and handle it carefully after purchase.  Contact the shop you bought it from if you need to make a complaint.

Mushroom fibres (hair)

Sometimes we receive complaints about hairs in food such as pizza, often these ‘hairs’ turn out to be mushroom fibres.  The mushroom that we know is the fruiting body of the hidden mushroom plant.  This plant is made up of microscopic filaments (hyphae) which combine to form strands called mycelium.  The mycelium grows in the soil on wood and leaves, or in compost.  The mushroom body first develops as a tiny ball on the mycelium and grows to a certain size before being picked to eat.  Sometimes, strands of mycelium can remain with the mushroom during preparation and cooking.  When cooked, the fibrous mycelium can look like a coarse hair.

Action:  There is no public health risk.  You may contact the shop you bought it from or manufacturer.

Insects in jam

These are usually wasps or fruit flies.  These insects are naturally associated with fruit and fruit growing areas.  As they are small and light, some will inevitably get past the inspection process.  They do not carry disease and are not a health risk.

Action:  There is no public health risk.  You may contact the shop you bought it from or manufacturer.

Cardamom pods in pilau rice

Cardamom pods are sometimes mistaken by members of the public as rodent droppings or insects.  Cardamom is the common name for certain plant species native to India and South-eastern Asia.  The fruit (pod) is a small capsule with 8 to 16 brown seeds, the seeds are used as a spice or the pods can be used whole in pilau rice.

Action:  There is no public health risk.  Cardamom pods can either be removed or eaten.

Cinnamon sticks in pilau rice

Cinnamon sticks are sometimes mistaken as a piece of wood if found in food.  Cinnamon is commonly used to flavour a variety of foods.

Action:  There is no public health risk.  The cinnamon can be removed from the food and the food eaten as normal.

Meat and poultry

Skin, bone or other animal material

Products made from meat and/or poultry may contain small bones, skin, or parts of blood vessels.  These are unsightly but rarely a health hazard as they are normal parts of the original animal.

Action:  This is not a public health risk.  If you have damaged a tooth or cut your mouth on a small bone or piece of animal tooth in food, we cannot act on your behalf in these matters.  You should contact the manufacturer and/or seek legal advice.

Chicken red leg

A natural pigment within the bone of chicken may be released after cooking and the meat may have the appearance of not being correctly cooked.  The chicken will be thoroughly cooked but the temperature upon cooking will not have been high enough to denature the pigment.

Action:  Ensure that the chicken is thoroughly cooked by checking that the juices are running clear.  This is not a public health risk.

Discoloured ham

Ham cooked in a panini may be discoloured after cooking.  This may be because the ‘cure’ (nitrite level) was not as high as it could have been.  This is a quality issue.  Also, the ripening flora of the cheese in the panini can produce very small quantities of hydrogen peroxide, which when combined with the ham, can cause discolouration.

Action:  There is no public health risk.  You may contact the shop you bought it from or manufacturer.

Use by and best before dates

Use by dates

‘Use by’ means that a food must be used/consumed by the stated date.  You should not use any food or drink after the end of the ‘use by’ date shown on the label.  Even if it looks and smells fine the food may by unsafe.  You will usually find a ‘use by’ date on food such as cooked and cured meats, milk, soft cheese, ready prepared salads, pre-prepared meals and smoked fish.  All of which are stored chilled in a fridge.

It is important to follow any storage instructions on food labels, otherwise the food might not last until the ‘use by’ date.  Some labels also give instructions such as ‘eat within 2-3 days’ or a ‘week after opening’ it is important to follow these instructions.  But remember, if the ‘use by’ date is tomorrow, then you must use the food by the end of tomorrow even if the label says ‘eat within a week of opening’ and you have only opened the food today.

It is an offence for food businesses to sell or use food that has passed its use by date.

You may also see ‘display until’ and ‘sell by’ dates on labels which are instructions to shop staff to tell them when they should take a product off the shelves.  For fresh fruit and vegetables these may be the only dates shown, as they usually do not need a ‘best before’ date.  On other foods it may be in addition to the ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date shown.

Action:  If you have a complaint about food being sold past its use by date please email us to report it.

Best before dates (minimum durability date)

These dates are usually used on foods that last longer, such as frozen, dried or canned foods.  On a label this will be identified as the ‘best before date’.  This means that the food will be best if eaten before the given date but should still be safe to eat after, although the quality may be affected.