Some people in the food industry are reluctant to use customers’ reusable containers. I’m talking about instances like using a Keep Cup for takeaway coffee or using tubs to buy meat or take home leftovers from restaurants – any situation where you would like to use a reusable container or bag to reduce packaging waste. Businesses which refuse to use customers’ reusable packaging almost always blame their decision on health and safety regulations, leaving the customer confused and feeling rejected simply for trying to be an environmentally responsible citizen. It’s not a nice feeling for the customer and it can be  a loss for the business because people tend to share their bad experience and are reluctant to return. So, I decided to get the facts so that consumers can empower themselves to vote with their dollar and respectfully hold businesses accountable for their own decisions. I thank the Food Safety Unit, Department of Health and Human Services for providing answers to my questions. These questions are based on my own experience and what I have commonly heard from others.

There is no provision under the Act or the Code that prevents a customer from using their own container for storage of food purchased.

Question 1: Is there any law/regulation stopping me from using my container for any food? If not, how is it that I can still be refused service when using my own container?

I will emphasise that neither the Victorian Food Act 1984 (the Act) or the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (the Code) places any legislative requirements that would prevent a business from using a container provided by a customer to store or package food purchased. In fact, many businesses are actually embracing using environmentally friendly reusable packaging, with cafés using reusable cups being a good example.

If a business has a policy to not accept customer containers for the storage of food purchased, then that is a business decision rather than a restraint due to legislation.

Note from Tammy: If I am told by a business that health regulations prevent them from using my container, I will let them know that there are no legislative requirements preventing me from using my container. If they genuinely seem to disagree, then I will suggest they check with the Food Safety Unit at the Department of Health and Human Services. Otherwise, I’ll ask that the business owns up to rejecting this environmentally friendly practice as its own business decision, not as something that has been forced upon them. I think accountability is important and it helps prevent confusion.

Question 2: Can I take home leftovers from a restaurant in my own container?

There is no provision under the Act or the Code that prevents a business from allowing a customer to take leftovers from a restaurant in their own containers.

Question 3: A business told me that Council’s health regulations prevented them from using my reusable packaging. Is this possible?

Council would not have any power to make them undertake this practice, as it is out of the scope of the Food Act. You could always advise the business that you will be speaking to the council to check if this claim is true, but, at the end of the day it is a choice by the business to not allow this practice to occur.

For Gippslanders:

Baw Baw Shire Council provided this response: “The decision for registered food premises not to use customers containers is a business decision. In making this decision, businesses may consider the quality of the container and the likelihood of it being able to taint or compromise the chemical/bacterial quality of the food they are supplying, however there is no legislative requirement for business to refuse to use a customer’s container.”

Bass Coast Shire Council provided this response: “The re-use of customer containers is not prevented by health regulations and if a retail outlet is refusing to offer this type of service it is an individual business decision”.

South Gippsland Shire Council said: “There is no restriction on businesses serving food to a customer in the customer’s own container. It is obviously the customers responsibility to ensure the container is clean and sanitised so if there were ever a complaint in relation to contamination of the food then this would need to be taken into account. Most people of course do not shop expecting to have a problem with the food at a later date!”

Read Latrobe City Council’s response here.

East Gippsland and Wellington Shire Councils were also asked if they would like to provide a statement for this post to ensure clarity of information, but so far I have not been provided with one.

Question 4: Why is it that a butcher will happily use my container but it’s not possible at a farmers’ market?

Meat sold at a farmers’ market must be processed, packaged, labelled at and transported from a licensed meat processing facility and stored and sealed in a robust, leak proof container as approved by the licensing authority and regulator Primesafe. For this reason, any meat purchased at a farmers market should already be in a sealed container/ package.

A note from Tammy: PrimeSafe confirmed this to be true under the Meat Industry Act 1993. I followed up with a question about leaving my reusable container that seals well at the farmers’ market with the licensee of the business to package at their PrimeSafe licensed facility, and was told I had already been provided with the answer – so I guess she means it’s not possible! I’m still not sure why if all those requirements were ticked. Would love someone in the meat industry to explain this to me so we can better support local and ethical produce.

Question 5: From a vendors perspective does food have to be individually wrapped or covered, for example premade food like muffins and loaves of bread at markets?

A food vendor must ensure that all food on display is protected from contamination. This can be achieved in several ways, including but not limited to:

–        Individually packaging the food
–        Storing the food in a display cabinet

Referencing Section 3.2.2 Division 3 (6) of the Code, a food business must, when storing food, store the food in such a way that –

(a)        it is protected from the likelihood of contamination; and

(b)        the environmental conditions under which it is stored will not adversely affect the safety and suitability of the food.

A note from Tammy: This means food vendors can find ways to sell their food without pre-packaging it or wrapping it in plastic wrap (although it may mean changing their registration with the Council). There is nothing to stop this food from then going into my container (unless the business decides not to do this).

Question 6: A business refused to use my reusable packaging saying the food had to be sold packaged with the label. It is obvious that many foods and products are sold without labels, so in which cases is this necessary? 

Referencing Standard 1.2.1—6 of the Code, If the food for sale is in a package, it is required to bear a label unless it:

(a)        is made and packaged on the premises from which it is sold; or

(b)        is packaged in the presence of the purchaser; or

(c)        is whole or cut fresh fruit and vegetables (other than seed sprouts or similar products) in a package that does not obscure the nature or quality of the food; or

(d)        is delivered packaged, and ready for consumption, at the express order of the purchaser (other than when the food is sold from a vending machine); or

(e)        is sold at a *fund raising event; or

(f)        is displayed in an *assisted service display cabinet.

A note from Tammy: Given that labelling really only seems to apply to food already packaged for distribution and sale, it shouldn’t be an excuse for not using your reusable packaging. For example, I was recently refused the use of my own bag for this reason, however the food was being cooked and packed in front of me at the place of sale, so the business was incorrect.

Question 7: Is it true that egg cartons cannot legally be reused? Different people say different things.

To be clear I will separate the two scenarios; consumer reusing egg cartons and business reusing egg cartons prior to selling.

Business reusing egg cartons prior to selling: Business should not reuse egg cartons, as reusing egg cartons can cause contamination of eggs. Also, the label on the packaging of the eggs may be different to the egg put in the packaging. Resulting in potential misrepresentation of who produced the eggs.

Customer reusing their own cartons If a customer attends a premises (egg seller at a farmers’ market) and requests eggs to be placed in their own egg carton to take away, there is no legislation to stop that from happening. However, there would be a concern that you may not get the correct best before date. Ultimately though, it is the business choice if they allow you to do it.

Final note from Tammy: I hope I have answered all your questions but if I haven’t, please tell me in the comments if there are any other situations you have encountered in Australia regarding your reusable containers and bags and I’ll do my best to provide answers.

For more information, please see the Food Standards Australia New Zealand website.

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25 thoughts

  1. Thank you for such an informative piece, which obviously took significant time to put together. I have, in the recent past, had a refusal to have my keep cup refilled one the grounds of ‘OH&S’. I took my cup and left, but did try and find information/laws about this exact topic but with little success, so thank you again. I will certainly feel more confident should I ever be in this situation to politely ‘stand my ground’ knowing that there are no laws preventing such refusal.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Mary. I’m glad to have given you more confidence. Just remember a business can still refuse to use your container because they have that right, they shouldn’t blame it on health regulations. It will be interesting to see what sort of excuses people start being given based on this information or if businesses become more willing now. I think a lot of it is misunderstanding and fear. Good luck in future situations using your containers 🙂

      Like

  2. A very informative article (though as I’ve emigrated to the UK, I would have to do my own research here using your investigations as a guide…)

    It is very important for business owners to know the difference between what is law and what are their own business decisions; however one point I would make is that it is important not to vilify a business if they have made some of the business decisions you have outlined in your article. We must be careful not to suggest that any business owner who does not allow customer containers does not care for the environment – this is an unfair assessment of many businesses.

    The first priority of any viable business is to stay in business – the business owner has a family to feed and a responsibility to their employees and the families they, in turn, have to feed. All business, regardless of market, is ultimately an exercise in risk management: opportunity risks, control risks and hazard risks. We live in an increasingly litigious world, and there are many people in it who will take any opportunity to sue a business for personal gain. This is an ever present risk to which food and drink vendors are particularly susceptible, and small businesses may not be able to survive the cost and damage to reputation that such a case may bring, regardless of the outcome.

    Consider an example of a customer bringing an unsanitary container which then contaminates food that was otherwise perfectly healthy. In such a case, it would be nearly impossible to prove it was the customer’s container and not the food at fault – and while I have not looked at case histories I can only imagine that the customer would be given more benefit of the doubt, making it it a huge risk on the part of the vendor.

    Based on your analyses of the legislation, there seems to be no provision at all for the case of customer containers. It would then seem likely that there is no provision to protect businesses from the potential for improper or unsanitary customer containers being a threat to their business. If legislation was introduced (or, if it does already exist, I and many of your readers would surely love to know) which protected the business to the effect of “Customers may provide their own containers if it is practical for the product, but the customer then waives the right to litigate in the case of contaminated food and accepts the entailed risks” then this protection would be very likely to make businesses actively encourage the use of customer containers. After all, every container they don’t have to provide is a saving, and such savings could make a huge difference to small businesses that exist on razor-thin margins.

    Apologies for this turning into an essay, but I always try to make reasonable and balanced comments – heaven knows the Internet needs more of them!

    Thanks again for providing such an interesting article.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Alex, definitely a lot going on in your comment which I’ll try to respond to.
      There’s no intention to vilify business and I haven’t meant to suggest that decisions to not use reusable containers means they don’t care for the environment because I know many of them do, but I am of the opinion that we can vote with our dollar to support environmentally responsible practices. Why shouldn’t we be demanding better solutions from business? After all, who else are we interacting with for all our everyday needs. If everyone accepts the status quo, what’s going to change? We cannot keep living in this disposable culture because the planet cannot support it. If business feel their hands are tied then they also need to demand better solutions. This is how individuals come together to make change. Why aren’t risk assessments taking into account public health issues caused by waste? These sorts of responsibilities are externalised for businesses. They can create, use and sell disposable products but have no responsibility for what happens to them or the problems they cause.

      There is a business I know of using a waiver in this way and advertising that they accept reusable containers. They were advised to do that by Council. If it’s what businesses need to do to feel protected then more of them should do it (customer only needs to sign once), but I’m not sure it is necessary. My understanding is that once a product is purchased it becomes your responsibility, so if there is a problem with the product down the track the business doesn’t have to claim responsibility for it because it was put in your own container (this was told to me by PrimeSafe).

      Hope I covered everything. Thank you for contributing valuable thoughts to this discussion. I do understand where you are coming from, and I feel for people in business who feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, but I get so fired-up about these issues and I want people to know that we have to be the change.
      xx

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Some great comments here already on a very informative and constructive article. Thanks for sharing your research.

    Just a few little things that popped into my mind while reading – firstly it is important that readers understand that different jurisdictions may have different rules on these things and some of the research you’ve cited relates to practices in Victoria.

    The second thing I would mention is that there is a distinction between health and safety in terms of food contamination and health and safety in terms of managing risks to workers. The legislation on managing risks to worker health and safety in most Australian jurisdictions places a very clear burden on the business to make choices about managing risks to the workers they employ. It is entirely possible that the process of making a business decision not to accept a customer’s own container or vessel has been made on the basis of managing work health and safety risks rather than food contamination risks.

    As one of the previous commenters noted, it is absolutely important that we don’t set out to vilify a business for making choices.

    Thanks again for sharing your research, well written and well considered.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the feedback Cyndi and for sharing this perspective. My thoughts are that hopefully readers read the clear references to the Victorian Act and Australian Code to recognise that some states might have differences, and also that my first question to DHHS would have picked up concerns related to more than just food contamination, including risk to workers as you point out (very good point by the way). This post definitely doesn’t set out to vilify businesses; I’ve tried to be clear all throughout that the facts are that there is no law preventing it from happening, its a business decision, and that we should all be clear about this fact because it’s not helpful to falsely blame another organisation like DHHS or Council or legislation that doesn’t exist. Removing the confusion can help give people the extra courage they need to use reusable containers to reduce their waste. If a business can very clearly state a valid reason as to why they are refusing to use someone’s container then I’m sure that would be respectfully accepted by most people.

      Besides all this, we are at a stage were we need to seriously look at the constructs of our society and challenge the way things work for a more sustainable future. As an individual, I am going to do what I can, but I am limited to the choices businesses provide me. Why shouldn’t we be encouraging/challenging businesses to make environmentally sound choices. If they feel restricted, then they need to demand change too. We simply cannot go on with such a disposable culture. Businesses might change their minds about some of these things if they had full lifecycle responsibility of the products they create, use, and sell rather than externalising it for others to deal with (or not as it happens because so much of it ends up in the environment). Risk analysis for health and safety decision making should also include proper consideration for the health problems caused from the environmental damage that has been caused.
      Thanks for adding some great information to the discussion.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent post Tammy and very useful information- Kudos!. I really appreciate the time you took to find out about all those information. I can use this as a reference to check the laws in US. I don’t think they are very different than what you have in Australia or New Zealand. I believe in 2008 Starbucks rolled out a environmental program in U.S, Canada etc., to reduce the waste by encouraging the customer to bring their own cups for the coffee. Considering a major chain like Starbucks has encouraged people to bring their own cups I can easily say that there is no such law in U.S that restricts customers from using their own containers at restaurants/coffee shops etc.,

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for this info. I requested coffee in my keep cup at a Starbucks in an Australian shopping centre a little while ago, maybe a couple of months, and was affirmed by the nice staff member for doing so… Then I watched as they made a coffee in a takeaway cup, poured it into my cup, and smiled happily at me, thanking me again for being environmentally aware as they threw the takeaway cup in the bin with one hand while handing over my coffee in the keep cup wth the other… Bemusing.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks so much Tammy!
    This is the info I’ve been looking for! I hate arguing with vendors, but sometimes they refuse my containers for the most ridiculous reasons! I was told I could only get sourdough bread in a plastic bag for OH&S reasons, but other breads were ok. Wish I’d has this information then!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Really useful article! I was wondering if you know whether the regulations vary much between states? Would the legislation for Western Australia be the same? Seems we have our own Food Act but it “adopts” the Australia New Zealand Standards Code, I’m not sure what that might mean or the best way to research it further. Any ideas much appreciated

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know I’m afraid. I wouldn’t think they’d vary much but you never know. You’d have to track down your Department of Health and Human Services equivalent, find the food safety area and see if it refers to a specific Act, then decipher it. Or, just ring/email to get answers.
      Now I’m thinking I might do that myself and update this post to have info for each State. It just might take a while. If you happen to go ahead and get a response, I’d love to hear about it 🙂

      Like

  7. I wonder what the laws are here in the United States. I’ve had some places welcome my own containers, even give discounts, then others refuse because they site they can’t because of health code. You’ve given me inspiration to check with my own health department!

    Liked by 1 person

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  9. I took my own plastic container to a Woolworths deli to buy some sausages (actually cocktail frankfurts, for my son). They were happy to use my container but had to use a single plastic bag (placed over the shop assistant’s hand like a glove) to retrieve the sausages. If I didn’t bring my own container, that “glove”/bag would have then packaged the sausages, and then been wrapped in paper. In my case, they then threw away the bag. They said “oh&s” required them to use the bag. I felt little my effort in bringing my own container was a little pointless in this case:/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The supermarkets are hopeless at this sort of thing. You’re lucky they even tried, most of them outright refuse to touch a container. In fact Woolworths head office told me they have no way of deducting the weight of the containers on their scales. This is one reason why most people trying to reduce waste forget the supermarket and start shopping at smaller local businesses like butchers, bakers, and grocers. At these places they’ll use tongs or hands to pick up the sausages and put them straight into your container.

      Like

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