Crimes Against Food (And Customers). Re-opening Or Redeeming Your Reputation
Being in the food industry, you’ll know the many hazards that can damage a businesses reputation. From high profile court cases and EHO shut downs to low food hygiene ratings and poor social media skills, we regularly see restaurateurs facing trial by media, and in some cases actual trials! From international restaurant and fast food chains to your local gastro pub, they all suffer from the same potential issues and this article will keep you updated with the latest culprits and some of the biggest (and in some cases, most bizarre) food safety issues we’ve come across. You’ll also find our guidance on what you need to do when it’s time to re-open or improve your reputation. Buckle in, your in for a wild ride!
The North London Bakery
North London bakery has been fined £152,823 after it was found to be using a tennis racket to mash potatoes. The directors of Sweet Mahal and Doce Bakers appeared before Highbury Magistrates Court last week to answer charges, after an EHO inspection discovered the potato-covered racket in a bowl of boiled potatoes.
Fiona Sinclair is director of leading UK food safety consultancy STS. She says: “This business was previously known to local EHO’s for having sub standard hygiene practices, but it actually beggars belief that any food business operator could think this was an acceptable practice. It appears to have been the final straw. When advice and warnings to clean up their act fell on deaf ears and hygiene standards continued to decline, the local council quite rightly saw fit to exercise their powers and prosecute the business.
“The question is, if the bakery finds it acceptable to use a tennis racket as a potato masher and can’t muster the decency to buy a simple piece of everyday, inexpensive kit, what on earth else is going on behind closed doors? Ones imagination could run wild…
“As consumers we put our trust in food producers to make sure that the food we eat is handled hygienically, and produced in a clean environment. The public can’t see what goes on behind closed doors and, as such, it’s examples like this that show the importance of the role that an EHO plays in protecting public health.
“Not only was this business cutting corners and failing to comply with even the most basic of hygiene laws, but they were operating under conditions that surely morally indicate blatant disrespect for the trusting, paying consumer.
“This case illustrates the value of unannounced visits from enforcement officers, and the importance of an EHO’s legal power of entry to gain access to inspect food businesses at any reasonable time. It is also good to see the courts issue a hefty fine – due punishment for such a laissez-faire attitude towards public safety.”
Almost Famous Inquest: Lessons To Be Learned
A seven day inquest into the death of student Shahida Shahid has ended with a verdict of misadventure. The jury found that Ms Shahid’s death was a ‘an unintended consequence of a deliberate act’ and that a ‘lack of communication’ between her server and the chef led to her being served a dish containing allergenic ingredients, despite her notifying the restaurant of her allergies prior to placing the order.
Mike Williams is director of leading UK food safety consultancy STS. He says that there are lessons every food business should take away from this case:
“It’s safe to say that the death of Shahida Shahid was not intended by the staff at Almost Famous, however, there was a disregard as to the importance of food allergens knowledge displayed across the board. As a result a bright, youthful prospect has been lost to her family and friends. This incident should be a stark reminder to all food business owners, big or small, as to the importance of ensuring all their staff members are aware of the impact that food allergens can have. The provision of correct allergen awareness information and clear and concise training of all staff is essential to ensuring consumer safety.
“The inquest into Shahida’s death, apart from revealing a disgraceful lack of care or sense of responsibility by key staff who declined to participate in the inquiry, showed that there was clear uncertainty amongst Almost Famous employees as to which food items contained allergens and which did not. Furthermore, some staff members were seemingly unaware of the allergens in the food – including the in-store trainer! Whilst it may be unfair to expect each individual to know exactly which allergens are in which foods, it is expected that the breakdown of allergenic ingredients per dish is fully documented. When a customer requests a certain allergen free meal but needs help in choosing, it should be standard practice for staff or managers to provide this. It appears that in this case, this care was lacking.
“In summary, training for front of house staff should include the following as a minimum:
What procedures to follow if a guest requests allergen free foods Where allergen information is held That they should never guess at the content of food and request assistance from a supervisor or manager
“Training for food handlers should include the above but in addition as a minimum:
Awareness of the 14 known allergens Methods of controlling allergen cross contamination in the kitchen The risk that substitute food items can present Procedures for preparing allergen free meals, especially where there are multiple allergenic ingredients in the kitchen area, including the use of clean utensils, crockery and pans and where necessary chopping boards that have not been used for any preparation after they were cleaned. The need to pay attention to customer needs and never guess at allergen content questions when presented by staff and managers
“One final point about training is that this needs to be completed on a regular basis. Menu items change as do ingredients and therefore staff must be advised when menu specifications and indeed allergen information sheets are amended. It also does no harm to remind staff of the risks that allergies can provide and it would not be seen as over egging the pudding by keeping them at the forefront of the minds of all food handlers.
“Legislation for the control of allergen ingredients is no longer new. It might have been relatively new when this incident happened at Almost Famous but now, three years after the legislation was introduced, there is no excuse for any food business failing to achieve these requirements.
“Let us hope that all food business operators learn from this incident and that no other family has to go through what the Shahid family has.”
Chef ‘Spikes’ Vegan Meal
When the chef/owner of a restaurant in Shropshire wrote on Facebook that she had ‘spiked’ a vegan guest, the reaction was strong. Laura Goodman wrote two posts on Saturday 30th December saying: “Pious, judgemental vegan (who I spent all day cooking for) has gone to bed, still believing she’s a vegan”, and: “Spiked a vegan a few hours ago.”
The posts triggered a frenzy on social media, with some even calling for the chef to be charged with assault. Fiona Sinclair is director of leading food safety consultancy STS; she takes a look at this story from the food safety legislation perspective.
“It’s my understanding that Shropshire Council is investigating this incident. Rather than a food safety problem i.e. something in food that is capable of causing harm or injury, this appears to be, potentially, more of a food standards issue.
“Under Section 14 of The Food Safety Act 1990 it is an offence to sell, to the prejudice of the purchaser, any food which is not of the nature demanded by the purchaser. This means that a customer is served something different from what they had ordered e.g. if a customer ordered vegan pizza and the restaurant used non vegan cheese. Although we do not yet know what happened in this case, what food was served or what the chef meant by ‘spiked’, using a non vegan ingredient in a vegan dish could potentially be considered under this offense.
“Furthermore, under section 15 of the Act it also an offense to sell food that is falsely described or labelled, which is misleading as to the nature, substance or quality of the food, so this and other similar offences under food safety and trading standards legislation may be something that the council is looking into.
“If Shropshire Council decides there is enough evidence to bring charges against the chef and she is found guilty, these types of offenses can attract fines of £20,000.
“It is debatable as to whether the self confession style posts made by the chef owner would be sufficient, robust evidence on which to base a prosecution. Even if Shropshire Council were satisfied that there was sufficient evidence that an offence has been committed, any decision to consider formal action would depend on whether or not they consider it is in the public interest to do so.
“On one hand we could say that this was a naive, one off occurrence and the torrent of negative feedback the restaurant has received will be punishment enough – the chef and her husband have already backtracked on the claims in an attempt to do damage control, saying they were merely ‘flippant’ and she had written the comments after ‘having too much to drink’. They will surely regret their actions and the business will suffer from negative ratings, lack of trust and bad publicity.
“On the other hand the public place great trust in whoever is preparing their food and expect the fact that preparation happens behind closed doors to have no effect on the nature or quality of food that they receive. Should an example be made of a chef who appears to have exploited this trust in order to ensure that they take customer choices seriously? Regardless of a food handlers personal beliefs regarding food preferences, it’s important that they serve exactly what the customer has ordered. This would be the same whether they had ordered vegan, vegetarian, halal, kosher, nut free or any other allergen free food.”
Kent Cafe Receives 1 Star Food Hygiene Rating
A cafe in Kent is under fire after its head chef said that he “did not believe in five star ratings” and food hygiene ratings were “an excuse for boffins to get a job”. He had been contacted by a reporter from Kent Live News after the cafe received a one star rating at its latest inspection.
Without seeing the inspection report, it is difficult to ascertain the exact reason for the Belgian Cafe to be given a food hygiene rating of one. However, contrary to the head chefs claims, wear and tear and slippery stairs are unlikely to be solely responsible for such a low rating.
Whilst it is understandable to be defensive of your business and reputation, the comments of the head chef perhaps provide some clues as to part of the problem and reason for the low rating.
A third of the criteria during a food hygiene rating inspection is confidence in management, including whether there is an appropriate food safety management system and whether the system is likely to be implemented at local level. Officers however are also asked to take other factors into consideration, for example the track record of the company and its willingness to act on previous advice. Perhaps most significantly in this instance, officers are also asked to base judgement on “the attitude of the present management towards hygiene and food safety”.
The quotes reported from this head chef are unlikely to rate highly, create a good impression of attitude towards food safety, or gain a favourable confidence in management score.
We don’t know whether or not the chef’s dismissive attitude came across during the inspection and contributed to the low rating but it does illustrate the point that there should be some respect for the fact that food safety laws are there to protect public health. His comments do make a good case for the legal requirement for food hygiene training in order to provide awareness of its importance!
15 Year Old Dies After Suffering Allergenic Reaction To A Takeaway: Two Arrested
Two men have been arrested over the death of 15 year old Megan Lee, who died on New Year’s Day after apparently suffering an allergic reaction to a takeaway. Lancashire police are holding the two men, both staff members at an unidentified Indian takeaway, on suspicion of involuntary manslaughter by gross negligence.
Mike Williams, Director of food safety consultancy STS, says: “This tragic case just highlights the importance of food business operators treating allergenic ingredient control with the utmost of care. Simple mistakes or base negligence can have devastating consequences.
“Food business operators simply cannot hide behind ignorance when it comes to food safety and allergens. Legislation controlling allergenic ingredients is no longer new having been formally in force for over 2 years, with the Food Standards Agency and other bodies running major awareness campaigns.
“This is the not the first case and, unfortunately, will likely not be the last where negligence has led to the death of a young person and business owners must stand up and accept their responsibility to make sure that allergenic ingredients are carefully controlled. Staff members in food establishments also have their own responsibilities and should follow guidelines that they have been provided with. Ensuring that staff and managers are properly trained is of critical importance as is remembering that documentation detailing allergenic ingredient content must be updated as menu items change or alternative raw materials are sourced.
“Controlling allergenic ingredient content in foods is not necessarily difficult it just needs awareness and care with the relevant time and attention paid to it. As we’ve seen in this case, lapses can result in the worst possible outcome.”
Contaminated Ice Found In Coffee Chains
BBC investigation has found that ice from three of the UK’s biggest coffee chains contained varying levels of faecal bacteria. Mike Williams is director of leading UK food safety consultancy STS. He says that while the reports are concerning, the story has a positive outcome:
“Ice sampling during the summer months is nothing new and we regularly see news stories that raise eyebrows regarding bacterial content. The good news is that food poisoning outbreaks are rarely, if ever, attributed to ice so there should not be too much to fear.
“The sampling that is talked about in these articles identified the bacteria found in the ice as faecal bacteria. This is not great news but this is more of an indication that cleaning or personal hygiene standards need to be improved in the stores rather than identifying a potential major outbreak of illness just around the corner! The coffee chains tested have taken very appropriate actions to improve standards as a result of the sampling results and I feel that this is a positive outcome.
“It’s actually quite easy for ice machines to become contaminated. Scoops need to be kept thoroughly clean to help prevent contamination and there should be controls in place to maintain ice machine cleanliness. Basic but essential controls such as ensuring there is no hand contact (ever) with the ice, making sure that utensils other than scoops e.g. glasses are not used to scoop the ice and drinks bottles are not placed in the ice machine as well as regular emptying and sanitising will ensure that there is no contamination.
“Faecal bacteria in ice makes a great headline but it really needs to be looked at in context – ice is not a common source of food poisoning. The story here is more the wider connotations of poor handling practices of all types of food that can lead to food poisoning and, in many ways, dirty ice could be just an indicative tip of the iceberg!”
Pub Owners Fined For ‘Completely Avoidable’ Food Poisoning Death
A 71 year old woman became ill and died from food poisoning after eating roast lamb at a Cornish pub. The Morning Advertiser reports that the Christine Morgan became ill after eating at the Clock & Key in Trispen, Cornwall and died the next day; another diner also became ill but recovered. The pub’s owner pleaded guilty to service of unfit food and was fined £20,000 and ordered to pay costs of £23,836.09. Manager Diane Elizabeth Burrow also pleaded guilty. She had prepared the lamb the weekend before it was reheated and served to the customer.
Mike Williams, Director of STS, says: “This death was completely avoidable and it is so disappointing that this pub management and catering team have not learned the lessons of the Railway Pub in Hornchurch where a Christmas meal caused the fatality of Della Callagher as a result of Clostridium poisoning.
“Maintaining temperature control when storing, preparing, cooking and cooling foods is an essential cog in the wheel of ensuring that food is safe. Allowing uncontrolled cooling can provide ideal conditions for the growth of
Clostridium perfringens which can, and has so unfortunately in this case, cause food poisoning symptoms and even death. This is also a rather salutary lesson in not preparing foods too far in advance of consumption as this may allow pathogens to grow to sufficient numbers to cause food poisoning.
“Training staff appropriately and also heeding advice given seems to have been a failure in this case. Whether provided by enforcement officers or consultants, training and advice is usually given for the right reasons. Ignorance is never a defence and in this case, a seeming lack of care has had tragic consequences. Food businesses should pay attention to this incident and look to their own systems.”
Lidl Forced to Recall Gravy Granules Before Christmas
Lidl has issued a recall on two batches of Kania Gravy Granules after unsafe levels of a chemical were found in then. STV reports that the
paint-thinning chemical Xylene has been found in the gravy granules which can cause headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting.
STS Director Fiona Sinclair says: “Chemical contamination of food is relatively rare, with microbiological contamination of food forming the majority of food related incident and food scares however, chemical food poisoning can be extremely serious. Some types cause acute symptoms such as vomiting quickly after consumption, whereas other chemicals can cause longer terms symptoms and diseases such as cancer.
“Acute chemical poisoning is relatively rare. Cases usually arise through carelessness and accidents such as storing chemicals such as cleaning fluids, pesticides and rodenticides (rat poison) in unlabelled containers.
“Chemicals can enter food stuffs via accidental spillage or other means of contamination during food storage or processing. Chemical contamination can also be caused by chemicals being deliberately added to foods e.g. additives and preservatives which are used in some food products. These are rigorously tested to assess whether they are permissible in food stuffs and, if so, at what levels. The presence of some in food may cause ill health, particularly at elevated levels. Examples of this include nitrates and nitrites which are added to food as preservatives and to add colour but, at high levels can be carcinogenic and/or cause acute symptoms. The flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate can cause burning sensations when used in high levels. An example of a topical chemical contaminant is Acrylamide, a chemical which forms naturally during the cooking of starch rich foods at a high temperature but which can be carcinogenic when used at high levels.
“The key to keep your customers safe is to source food from reputable suppliers who have robust HACCP systems in place to address and control chemical hazards. Prevention is better than cure but food businesses are encouraged to work closely with their suppliers to ensure that in the event of a chemical contamination incident, recall or withdrawal is efficient and prompt. It’s also sensible to subscribe to the FSA’s Food Alerts as a precautionary measure.”
Four Hotels and Restaurants Get Zero Hygiene Rating
Four Birmingham hotels and restaurants have scored a zero hygiene rating during inspections. ITV reports that the Hotel Du Vin, Jury’s Inn, Chung Ying Central and Chung Ying Garden all received the
lowest rating from inspectors.
STS Director Fiona Sinclair says the fact that a five star hotel such as the Hotel Du Vin has been given a food hygiene rating of zero illustrates what our teams have already seen. There is good and bad practice everywhere and, just because a restaurant/hotel is a first class/five star brand does not necessarily mean that you will find top notch food safety in the kitchen. Yes the two usually go hand in hand but it isn’t always the case; we have seen for ourselves five star premises with unsafe practices and poor standards. On the other hand we’ve also found many premises that people may perceive has having lower standards e.g. the local greasy spoon cafe be extremely diligent with scrupulous standards. When it comes to food safety you just can’t judge a book by its cover!
The beauty of the food hygiene rating system is that food businesses which are not up to scratch have nowhere to hide. The information is public for all to see and bad practices can no longer be kept behind closed doors.
The other thing to remember when it comes to food hygiene ratings is that large, prestigious companies can have robust systems in place but they are only as good as their weakest link. If standards unravel at local level then this can expose both customers and the brand. One reason why regular external audits from a company such as STS is so important is that we can help identify any weak links and support a company promptly to ensure they will reach highest ratings when inspectors come to their premises.
4 Star Restaurant Closed Down Due To Mouse Dropping And A Spice Mix Up
four star hotel restaurant in London has been fined £24,034.17 after a series of food hygiene failings, including a chef who reportedly thought mouse droppings were spices.
The Sanctum Soho Hotel restaurant was closed by health inspectors in May 2015 after they saw a mouse run across the floor, found mouldy food and dirty equipment. The latest inspection in June this year saw the restaurant awarded a food hygiene rating of 2 out of 5.
Fiona Sinclair, Director of STS, says this case highlights the importance of food hygiene: “The bad publicity which Sanctum has received shows just how hard it is for a company to restore their reputation after a case like this. Despite having immediately changed their staff, including the chef, they have a lot of work ahead in order to gain the top 5* rating and restore their reputation. This is a well known hotel with a lot of celebrity clients which shows that nobody is immune when it comes to food safety.”
The Sanctum Hotel put out a statement which said: “We took the immediate decision to voluntarily close the restaurant for 6 days so that we could urgently address the issues raised on the routine inspection. Since then we have made major improvements and have taken measures to ensure these issues won’t happen again, including the hiring of a new team of kitchen staff and award-winning chef and hygiene specialist.”
Fiona Sinclair says: “We cannot overstate the importance of proper food safety and hygiene procedures. By following best practice, the Sanctum hotel should be able to raise their hygiene ratings and, over time, they may put this behind them and establish a reputation for excellence. We would advise any food business owners to put priority on following food hygiene standards in order to protect both their customers as well as their own reputation.”
6 Year Disqualification For Restaurateur Employing Illegal Workers
Insider Media reports that the director of a Southend restaurant has been disqualified for six years for
employing illegal workers. Home Office immigration enforcement officers found three illegal workers in 2015 – the restaurant closed later that year after being fined £30,000.
ELAS employment law consultant Jacob Demeza Wilkinson says: “It is vitally important that employers are taking all steps necessary to ensure that all staff, no matter what their nationality, are legally entitled to work in the UK. It is a legal requirement for a business to employ only those people who are legally entitled to work and, as this case highlights, the consequences for failing to carry out these checks can be particularly severe. Ignorance is not a defence in matters such as this, so it is important that employers are aware of what they are required to do.
“The obligation for employers begins at the recruitment stage. Once an offer of employment is made to an individual, the employer should request documentation from the employee confirming their right to work legally in the UK. It is important that original documents are provided and copies should not be accepted. It is common and good practice to make an offer of employment conditional on the individual’s ability to provide these documents and, in fact, it is standard practice to make the request in the offer letter. It is also important to take copies of the documents that have been provided and keep them on file as evidence should an inspection take place.
“Any decision on whether certain documents allow a person to work in the UK is made by UK Visas and Immigration (formerly the Border Agency) so if you have any doubts about the validity of a document, it is advisable to contact them for a conclusive answer.
“These checks will become increasingly important over coming years as the right to move freely within the EU is removed, so now is a good time, if you don’t already, to ensure that your recruitment process fully covers checks on the right to work in the UK.”
How Do You Re-Open After AN EHO Shuts Your Business Down?
Two Staffordshire takeaways could face criminal prosecution
after being shut down. Stafford Chippy and Szechuan House both received zero hygiene scores and were closed after investigators found mice infestations in both premises.
“In order to close a food business EHO’s must consider they pose an imminent risk to public health. One of the most common reason for closure is a heavy uncontrolled pest infestation where the risk of contamination of food is not controlled e.g. food not suitable covered in pest proof containers, surfaces that may have come into contact with mice not cleaned and disinfected. As a result there is a real risk that the food which is served could be contaminated – not only by the mice, their droppings and urine but also potentially from harmful pathogenic bacteria carried on the rodents’ bodies.
“When environmental health closes a premise, they need to demonstrate the reasons for the closure. In this case an emergency prohibition notice was served by the EH department. This would have required the officers to take lots of evidence e.g. photos, droppings, sometimes even dead mice, in order to demonstrate to the courts why the premises should be closed. Prosecution will typically follow such closures due to the imminent risk to public health and the evidence gathered by EHO’s for the closure can also be used in a prosecution.
“It is usual for a prosecution to follow such closures due to imminent risk – the EH department are likely to have gathered substantial evidence which can also be used for prosecution. When a premises is closed a copy of the Emergency Prohibition notice explaining the reason for the closure will be posted on the window. Closures are often also splashed over the local news, as happened in this case.
“The premises would only be allowed to reopen when the court order is lifted. This happens when officers are satisfied there is no longer a risk to health and the owners have robustly addressed a list of remedial actions, working in close contact with the local EHO’s.
“You might be surprised to learn that businesses which have previously been closed down can often be some of the restaurants/takeaways which now have the most hygienic standards, however this isn’t always the case. Businesses may struggle to bounce back from a closure due to tarnished reputation and loss of customers. They might also struggle to gain high ratings due to low ‘confidence in management’ scores given the track record of the premises which form a third of the criteria for the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme and can take a while to overcome.”