There was some unwelcome news this week for those of us who occasionally give in to a craving for a KFC.

The Birmingham Mail reported that traces of faeces have been found in the ice served at the KFC in Bull Street.

No doubt KFC will survive the damage to its reputation, although I imagine that a few more customers will be opting for coffee over coke for the time being. However, many smaller food businesses can be placed at risk of going out of business if news like this is reported.

Of course, hygiene problems in restaurants and other food businesses are more usually caused by mouse droppings that human faeces. However, the “ick factor” that results is much the same – customers will look to go elsewhere.

Owners of food businesses are well aware of what hygiene measures are required and the Birmingham City Council website (other councils are available) is certainly helpful on this subject.

Pretty much all of the food businesses I have represented have striven for excellence in this area. However, things can go wrong. While it shouldn’t happen, 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 (ironically, in many such cases in Birmingham the premises were owned by the City Council). As seems likely in the case of KFC, a rogue member of staff can neglect to follow basic procedures. Businesses are required to guard against all of these eventualities and others.

So of course, things do occasionally go wrong. When they do, it is vital that the reputation of the business is protected. What can be done?

The first thing is to co-operate with the food safety officers, but only up to a point. Generally, 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. To do otherwise could risk liability for the business and individuals.

The officers will undoubtedly serve an abatement notice requiring certain work to be completed before the business can re-open. In most cases it should be completed, and fast so that the business can reopen as soon as possible. Occasionally, the requirements imposed are over the top. If in doubt, contact a solicitor.

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.

Whilst all of this is happening, and for quite a while afterwards, the officers will carry on with their investigation. This can seem very oppressive. However, it can also be an opportunity to limit the damage to the reputation of a business. For example, the officers might be persuaded not to take any action against a business, or to simply issue a caution, if certain work is completed, and courses undertaken. If they cannot be persuaded then this period is a chance to lay the groundwork for the court case. Again, it is a good idea to instruct a solicitor to ensure that all of this is done properly.

If the officers do decide to prosecute, then there is a very good change that the case will attract some press interest. Even if a business is going to plead guilty, it is vital that the mitigation be presented carefully. Most journalists try to be fair, and will generally report the key points made by both the prosecution and the defence. When mitigating to a court 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 mitigation is presented in a way that satisfies both audiences that the business has learnt the lessons, and customers can take confidence going forward.

For more information on all food safety and business defence matters, email info@reganpeggs.com, or call 0121 201 3765.