Across the EU, courts are starting to hand down much tougher penalties. These include fines running into millions of pounds and, as with two recent UK cases, imprisonment for transgressors.
The aim is to stop people from engaging in illegal and fraudulent activities, such as the 2013 horsemeat contamination scandal, which costs society huge amounts of money and has the potential to put people’s lives at risk.
Speaking at a conference organised by NSF International in London last month, Dominic Watkins, a partner with law firm DWF, remarked: “The game has changed as far as the food industry is concerned over the past couple of years.”
He outlined how fines had risen over the past few years and that this was likely to continue. He cited the £1.5M fine handed down in January to pub chain Mitchells and Butler, for a food poisoning incident at a Christmas dinner at one of its outlets in December 2012.
In this incident a woman died and other diners were made ill. The chef and manager of the premises involved were subsequently jailed.
“This fine is way, way higher than anything we have ever seen before,” said Watkins. “This is the direction of travel … The consequences now when things go wrong have really changed.”
But it is not just a UK phenomenon, former Scottish Liberal Democrat MP and MEP George Lyon, who is now a senior consultant and agrifood specialist at communications firm Hume Brophy, referred to the “swingeing fines” that were being introduced across Europe.
John Barnes, head of the Food Standards Agency’s Local Delivery Division, outlined the Agency’s work with the Sentencing Council on introducing stiffer penalties: “There is new guidance out there.”
Barnes described the recent conviction of Michael Redhead, who was fined £50,000 and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment at Hull Crown Court for fish fraud involving passing off one fish as another in his company’s dealings with the Iceland supermarket chain.
“We are having fines in the millions,” said Barnes. “This has to put people off.”