Last month labelling errors resulted in an established food business and meat supplier being put into administration after spot check inspections by the FSA led to the suspension of business due to suspected breaches. This seemingly “low level” regulatory type offending of mislabelling has also thrown the business into a criminal investigation with key personnel the subject of interviews under caution.
Meanwhile pest infestation media headlines are an all too frequent occurrence. In one particularly high profile case at the end of 2017, a parliamentary inquiry was launched by the Environment, Foods and Rural Affairs Committee leading to a food group Chief Executive being called to give evidence and explain the group’s failure to prevent offending. The group’s rapid drop in share price only emphasised the level of damage that can be done by the mere suggestion of breaches of food law.
But what triggered these headlines?
In fact the flavour of Food Law changed dramatically 2 years ago. It wasn’t the unexpected mention in the Budget speech that a sugary drinks tax would be introduced (which in just a few weeks will become law); nor the proposal for streamlined “Novel Foods” legislation (which arrived just last month); and not even Brexit and the associated opportunities or threats of food law divergence... Rather, the cumbersome titled “Health and Safety Offences, Corporate Manslaughter and Food Safety and Hygiene Offences: Definitive Guideline”.
For the first time sentencing for breaches of food safety and hygiene moved from being a little known or respected regulatory regime, which if breached could easily be assigned as a commercial risk, to a level of real financial and reputational risk that should give food law compliance a seat at every food business board meeting.
According to the guidelines, penalties for food safety and hygiene offences can range from £100 - £3 million; penalties for health and safety breaches go even further, ranging from £50 – 10 million. With offences based on exposure to risk rather than actual harm, there is no scope for complacency. In addition, courts have a host of other options to consider, such as Prohibition Orders which can immediately close a business if the court is satisfied that there is an immediate risk to public health. Or where a food business is convicted, the court may also have discretion to close or put conditions on the business in light of the previous offending and failure to heed warnings or advice.
The increasingly draconian approach to food crime has undoubtedly matched the dramatic increase in public awareness of the importance of food safety and integrity. The increased demands for healthy and specialist foods has changed the structure of food business. The result is vast global supply chains which make it much harder to control the individual elements, introducing new risks, whilst at the same time the demand for local sourcing from artisan suppliers has resulted in extensive consumer and regulatory scrutiny. The pressure food businesses are under has never been greater.