Food safety industry receives new sentencing guidelines

The food sector has received a new set of sentencing guidelines, designed to improve health and safety within the industry. 

Restaurants that are responsible for a food poisoning outbreak, alongside unsafe preparation, are among the offences that are covered by the new set of rules.

For the first time, there will be sentencing guidelines in the publication enveloping the most commonly sentenced food safety offences in England and Wales. Up until now, there have only been limited guidelines for judges and magistrates covering these topics. These cases do not come before courts as often as some other criminal offences.

“These guidelines will introduce a consistent approach to sentencing, ensuring fair and proportionate sentences for those who cause death or injury to their employees and the public or put them at risk,” said sentencing council member Michael Caplan QC.

“These offences can have very serious consequences and it is important that sentences reflect these.”

As a result of these guidelines, offenders will subsequently receive higher penalties. This could particularly affect large organisations that commit serious offences – for example, when a company is found to be deliberately breaking the law and endangering the wellbeing of others.

In the past, there has been an increase in penalties for serious offenders; however, not all offenders received fines that accurately mirrored their crimes. As a result, the Council wants fines to be fair and reflective of the offence committed.

To obtain this, the guidelines present sentencing ranges that are proportionate to the different levels of risk of harm that can be a result of these offences.

Food offences in particular are wide-ranging. From poor hygiene to unsatisfactory kitchen preparation standards that can lead to food poisoning, the sector circumferences a wide range of potential hazards.

How blameworthy the culprit is will also be taken into account when being sentenced. This will involve evaluating a small mistake in standard procedures to a deliberate act that could lead to harm.

In most cases, offences are mainly committed by companies. Therefore, prison sentences are often replaced by fines, although this is not always the case.

To determine the amount of the fine, the offender’s turnover is used as a starting point. This is a clear indicator that can be easily assessed, although there are other factors that need to be taken into account.

Relevant financial information must also be considered – for example, the profit margin of the organisation. It is also required that the possible impact on the company’s employees also be considered, as well the possible impact that a sentencing could have on the organisation’s commitment to improving its standards, as well as making amends to customers.

As a result of these factors, sentences will always be tailored to the perpetrator’s circumstances. The council believes that giving a small sole trader and a large corporation the same fine would be unfair without considering their financial circumstances.

“We welcome these guidelines,” commented Rod Ainsworth, director of regulatory and legal strategy at the Food Standards Agency. “They will ensure there is consistency in sentencing for food safety and food hygiene offences across the country. They will also ensure that offenders are sentenced fairly and proportionately in the interests of consumers.”

The guidelines will come into action in courts as of 1 February 2016.

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