By Angela Frewin
Environmental health officers believe magistrates are beginning to take a tougher line with caterers who breach food hygiene regulations, following highly publicised food safety scares.
David Eaton, principal environmental health officer for Shrewsbury & Atcham Borough Council, said he was "astounded" in February when magistrates fined a large pub company £12,500 for a first offence of possessing unfit food and keeping dirty kitchens. Fines of hundreds of pounds rather than thousands are usually expected.
Both Steve Miller and Jim Nolan, heads of environmental services at the London Borough of Newham and Epping Forest District Council respectively, have seen fines grow from their earlier "derisory" levels. Nolan points to the Pennington report on E coli as a potential trigger, adding that magistrates may also have taken note of calls for more realistic fines.
The Magistrates' Association denies any pressure from Government, but suggests a general push on health and safety at work may have raised awareness. It said that magistrates were now better trained and informed, while prosecuting lawyers were presenting better cases. Miller now expects a backlash of better-prepared defences.
EHOs who have detected no rise in fines nevertheless agree the amounts can vary tremendously, with the greatest discrepancies found in rural areas.
Despite more stringent hygiene regulations, fewer prosecutions are reaching court, while food poisonings are soaring. If this continues, fines could rise accordingly.
EHOs say cost, better enforcement, and more legal hurdles mean they are only prosecuting more serious cases.