The launch of the guidelines on the NetRegs website comes after the publication of the most comprehensive environmental survey ever conducted of the sector's small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
The SME-Environment 2003 survey, conducted for NetRegs, found that only 28 per cent of businesses questioned in the food and drink sector had introduced practical measures to reduce harm to the environment, such as carrying out an environmental assessment of their operations or appointing an environmental officer. Only 29 per cent had an environmental policy in place.
The research also shows that only 24 per cent of food and drink SMEs questioned could name any environmental legislation affecting them although 45 per cent said they would welcome more help and guidance with regard to their environmental responsibilities.
Failing to comply with environmental legislation can lead to costly fines and directors of the worst offending companies can be prosecuted. Businesses also risk missing out on the growing commercial benefits of good green credentials.
The UK's Environment Agency estimates that the food and drink sector produces between seven and eight million tonnes of waste per year, second only to the construction industry and consumes approximately 900 megalitres of water each day, enough to supply almost three-quarters of all customers' needs in London daily.
As a result, the NetRegs website was set up to provide essential reading for all SMEs involved in the processing and preserving of all types of food and drink, from the receipt of raw materials to storage of the final product. The site covers everything from the production, processing and preserving of meat and poultry and the manufacture of dairy products and beverages to fish and shellfish processing and the manufacture of prepared animal feeds.
As well as mandatory requirements, the site offers good practice advice and includes links to other sources of information.
The Food and Drink Federation's Food Safety and Environment Executive, Helen McDermott, said: "NetRegs is a very useful resource for smaller food and drink manufacturers and will help companies to work towards the objective of long-term sustainability."
The launch of the completed NetRegs website, in development since 2002 by the Environment Agency, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the Environment & Heritage Service, has been welcomed by other trade bodies and business support organisations.
Stephen Alambritis, Head of Parliamentary Affairs, the Federation of Small Businesses said: "NetRegs is a crucial resource for smaller businesses affected by increasing amounts of legislation.
"We welcome this move by the UK's environmental regulators to provide practical help to the small business community to understand environmental legislation and how it relates to their activities."
It is estimated that smaller businesses generate about 60 per cent of commercial waste and are responsible for as much as 80 per cent of pollution incidents. Alarmingly, only 18 per cent of 8,000 small UK businesses recently questioned could name any environmental legislation.
Less than a third - 31 per cent - had heard of the Duty of Care Regulations, which apply to all UK businesses. The Duty of Care Regulations 1991 control the storage, handling and disposal of waste and apply to all businesses that produce or dispose of waste.
The SME-nvironment 2003 survey comprised a telephone survey of 8,604 UK companies across 28 industry sectors for the NetRegs project during 2003.