Manslaughter Conviction for Restaurant Owner: A Reminder for Food Businesses

25 May 2016 | Comment

A restaurant owner has been convicted of gross negligence manslaughter, after a customer with a peanut allergy died as a result of eating a curry which contained powdered peanut.

In January 2014, a customer with a peanut allergy visited a restaurant in York and asked for a dish to be prepared for him which did not contain nuts. In a measure described as a cost-cutting exercise, the restaurant owner had substituted almond power with a cheaper ground nut mix, which contained peanuts, but failed to notify customers of the increased risk, despite the existence of warnings from suppliers. Despite making clear that the meal needed to be nut-free, and the words “no nuts” appearing on both the customer’s order and the lid of the prepared meal, the customer was served a meal which contained powdered peanut. He suffered a severe anaphylactic shock and died.

The offence was particularly aggravated by the fact that, three weeks before, another customer had suffered a serious allergic reaction to the powdered peanut. Local Trading Standards officers had conducted an investigation, and found potentially deadly amounts of peanuts in a meal that was meant to be peanut-free. The restaurant owner received specific advice about the dangers to customers. In view of the warnings that the restaurant owner had received to the effect that he was putting his customers’ health (and potentially their lives) at risk, the prosecution asserted that this was a case where profit had been placed before safety.

Upon conviction for gross negligence manslaughter and six food safety offences, the restaurant owner was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. Speaking after the verdict and sentence, Martin Goldman, Chief Crown Prosecutor at CPS Yorkshire & Humberside said “…the CPS has sent a very clear message to the catering industry: there is a duty of care to your customers. If you ignore your responsibilities and regulations, and put lives at real risk, then we will not hesitate to prosecute”.

What can food businesses to do comply?

The EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (No. 1169/2011) requires food businesses to provide allergy information on food sold or provided. It introduced a requirement for food business operators providing or selling non-prepacked foods (which includes pre-packed foods for direct sale) to provide information about the allergenic ingredients contained in those foods. Included within the scope are restaurants, cafes, school meals, bakeries and delicatessens (this is not an exhaustive list). Where food is prepacked, the Regulation retains the existing allergen labelling rules, but requires those allergens to be emphasised within the ingredients list.

The subsequent Food Information Regulations 2014 (as they relate to England and Wales) empower enforcement officers to take action against businesses that fail to comply.

In addition to complying with the Regulations by specifically bringing allergens to consumers’ attention,  food businesses need to ensure that particular attention is paid to staff training, and the additional care that is required when preparing meals for customers with allergies. Because of the potential for lethal consequences where food containing allergens are served to customers, food business operators should also have systems in place to check deliveries from suppliers, to ensure that they accord with the orders that have been placed, and to reduce the possibility of inadvertent inclusion of allergens in meals ought to be prepared free of those allergens. These measures should be documented in the business’s food safety management procedures, so that due diligence can be demonstrated at any subsequent inspections by enforcement authorities.

For advice in relation to food labelling, food hygiene and food safety law generally, please contact Martin Jones or Justin Davies at Hugh James’ Regulatory Department, on 029 2039 1048. Hugh James’ Regulatory department prosecutes for the Welsh Government, local authorities and a number of regulators in various fields. It also advises businesses and individuals facing prosecution. The department’s key areas are financial crime, health and safety (including food safety) and environmental protection.

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