The eye watering size of the fine involved in a recent health and safety case involving food poisoning was as much as a shock as the custodial sentences imposed on the pub manager and chef at the venue.
This was, however, an extreme case. The £1.5m fine for Mitchells and Butler for food hygiene offences followed the death of one diner at the Railway Hotel in Hornchurch after a Christmas lunch, with 30 others becoming seriously ill.
Following a thorough investigation the operator was prosecuted for food hygiene offences as a result of cooked turkey not having to been allowed to cool fully before reheating, making it a perfect breeding ground for clostridium bacteria.
M&B were prosecuted for failing to comply with Article 14(1) of Regulation EC 178/2002 by placing food on the market which was unsafe and unfit for human consumption. The company’s defence was that it took all reasonable precautions to prevent the offence. The prosecution accepted that the operator did have due diligence procedures in place and that if they had been properly followed the death and illnesses would have been prevented. However, the jury did not accept that the procedures had been properly followed by the individuals concerned. M&B did not condone the actions of its manager and chef and said that they had not followed safety procedures. As a result they were given custodial sentences of 18 months and 12 months respectively for food hygiene offences
Following criminal proceedings being concluded it is still open to the family of the deceased to bring a civil action against the operator, seeking compensation.
This case serves as a warning to all operators. Food safety must be taken very seriously otherwise lives can be lost, fines can be huge and reputations can be damaged.
It is essential to ensure that:
- robust due diligence procedures are in place
- staff are trained to operate due diligence procedures effectively
- records are kept of safety checks carried out
- staff are monitored to ensure that procedures are always followed in practice.
Warning: fines for food safety offences set to increase
Whilst the £1.5m in this case may seem punitive, it is important to be aware that may rise even further.
The prosecution of organisations for food safety offences and the appropriate level of fines in these cases is a subject currently under consultation. The Sentencing Council issues guidelines for judges to follow when sentencing offences – this is to ensure that there is consistency between courts. The Sentencing Council is concerned that the penalties given for food safety offences are often too low. It is currently consulting on new guidelines which will particularly impact on large organisations convicted of serious food safety offences. It intends to increase sentence levels to ensure that the sentence is proportionate to the offence. It proposes that the fine should take into account the financial circumstances of the offending organisation and be based on its turnover. The draft guidelines propose that the starting point when fining a large organisation (turnover of £50m or more) found guilty of a food safety offence where both the harm and culpability levels are high would be £1.2m (with the fine range being £500,000 up to £3m).
The Sentencing Council is keen to send the message that organisations who undercut competitors by failing to maintain proper food safety standards will have the financial benefits of their offending removed. The intention is that fines will have a real economic impact. The consultation ends on 18th February. Now is the time for organisations to ensure that due diligence procedures are in place and operating efficiently.
Sentencing Council on health and safety offences, corporate manslaughter and food safety and hygiene offences guidelines. View the consultation note here.
The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the present time and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.