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.

Other articles that back this up years later:

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