Food safety investigations: a simple guide for businesses

Green apple on a white background

While the vast majority of businesses strive for excellence in food safety, things can go wrong – a busy week can lead to staff ignoring parts of the cleaning schedule, a decaying building can see a small colony of mice arriving overnight, or a rogue member of staff can neglect to follow basic procedures. If the worst happens and an investigation is instigated, how can the future and the reputation of the business be protected?

Responsibilities of businesses for food safety

All food businesses, from hot dog vans to major food manufacturers, must be registered with a relevant local authority and must comply with the Food Safety Act 1990 Food Hygiene (England) Regulations 2006 Regulation (EC) 852/2004. A number of other regulations may also apply, depending on the type of business.

Birmingham City Council has some excellent resources on its website (as do most other local authorities) in relation to hygiene requirements for food businesses.

Any complaints about contamination, rodent infestation, poisoning or other hygiene or safety matters can result in an investigation, typically carried out by food safety inspectors, who are employed by local authorities and have the power to carry out unannounced inspections of premises.

What to expect during a food safety investigation

Where inspectors find a problem, the first thing they will often do is serve a prohibition notice to temporarily close the business, combined with an improvement notice requiring certain work to be completed before the business can re-open. In most cases, this work should be completed as quickly as possible so that the business can reopen without delay.

There will usually also be a list of further work that should be completed by a certain date. This is often the more expensive type of work, for example replacing counters, fridges, or even roofs. It is usually possible to negotiate both about the nature of the work required, and the timescales for finishing it. It is usually helpful to instruct a solicitor to carry out these negotiations – a few hours of a solicitor’s time may help to save your business many thousands of pounds.

Occasionally, prohibition notices are incorrectly or unlawfully imposed. If you think this has happened to you, please contact us straight away, as they can be challenged if acted upon quickly enough.

Once any immediate problems are resolved, there will usually be a full investigation, during which investigators will thoroughly scrutinise every aspect of your operating procedures. Generally speaking, it is wise to cooperate with the food safety officers – all records should be provided, and access granted to all areas of the business. However, no staff or management should agree to be interviewed under caution without a solicitor present, as doing so could risk liability for the business and individuals.

Potential outcomes of a food safety investigation

If inspectors are satisfied that no food safety breach has occurred, or that any breach has been rectified and that no harm has been caused, an investigation may end with no further action being taken.

However, it is important to be aware that even small oversights or gaps in procedures can lead to a prosecution. In serious cases, this action may include criminal charges – these can apply even to those who are not involved in the day-to-day running of the business.

For example, in 2016, business owner Mohammed Khalique Zaman was convicted of “gross negligence manslaughter” (in addition to several breaches of of food safety requirements) and sent to prison for six years, after a customer at one of his restaurants died as a result of the mis-handling by restaurant staff of a deadly peanut allergy. Mr Zaman, who was highly experienced in the industry, was convicted despite not having been involved in preparing the food or serving the customer.

Any food safety case involving a prosecution (criminal or otherwise) is likely to attract some press interest. Even if a business is going to plead guilty, it is vital that the mitigation be presented carefully, as there are effectively two audiences – the magistrates or judge who will impose the fine, and the potential customers of the business who will read the press reports. It is absolutely crucial that the business presents its case in a way that satisfies both of these audiences that it has learnt its lessons, and has put measures in place to prevent problems happening again.

How we can help during a food safety investigation

At Regan Peggs Solicitors, we have extensive experience with all aspects of food safety law. Should you find your business under investigation, we can help you in a number of ways:

  • We can help you to minimise any closure period, by negotiating with the relevant officers about which of the items listed in the improvement notice must be completed before you can re-open and which can be carried out in the following weeks or months.
  • We can be present at any formal interviews with directors or members of staff, in order to protect them and your business.
  • If some fault is found, we may be able to persuade the prosecutors to issue a caution rather than prosecute at court.
  • If a prosecution is brought, we can provide you with a robust defence and deal with the extensive paperwork involved.
  • Should your case attract press attention, we can help you to avoid adverse publicity and minimise reputational damage to your business.

Contact us today for a no-strings chat about your case, or request a callback and we’ll be in touch as soon as we can.