Food poisoning outbreaks and contamination scares are never good for business, especially in todays connected world. Take the case of Perrier mineral water for example. In the 1980s it was considered the leading brand, but then in 1990 was hit by a contamination incident when the carcinogenic chemical benzene was found in samples tested by a laboratory in the USA. This eventually resulted in a worldwide recall of 160 million bottles, a big hit in lost sales and a seriously tarnished reputation. In 1992 Nestlé stepped in and acquired Perrier and it remains part of the multinational’s portfolio of big name brands, but has never regained the market leading position it once held. The overall cost of the benzene contamination incident – apparently caused by failure to replace a filter – has been estimated at $150 million. Smaller businesses can be completely destroyed by a food safety scare. A combination of loss of customer trust, falling sales, criminal prosecutions and legal action from victims often overwhelming the financial resources available and leading to the rapid demise of the entire operation.
The effects on a business are likely to be severe enough when a contamination incident is the result of a system failure or human error, but if it is shown to be a consequence of deliberate action, then all hell will justifiably break loose. Knowingly neglecting important hygiene controls or putting hazardous products on the market can potentially have fatal results for unfortunate consumers and the penalties for doing so should be severe. That hasn’t always been the case, but recent events in the USA and the UK suggest that change is in the air.
For instance, in 2008-2009 a multistate Salmonella outbreak in the US affected at least 700 people and contributed to nine deaths. The outbreak was traced to contaminated peanut products manufactured by the Peanut Corporation of America. In September, company owner Stewart Parnell and his food broker brother Michael were sentenced to 28 and 20 years imprisonment respectively for knowingly shipping tainted products. Needless to say, there are appeals pending, but the message to other food business operators tempted to take short cuts with safety is clear. Meanwhile in the UK the Sentencing Council has issued new guidelines for sentencing those convicted of food safety offences. Larger businesses found guilty of corporate manslaughter, which could be the charge in the case of a fatal food poisoning outbreak, can be fined up to £20 million from next February. That should be enough to get the attention of the most rarefied of boardrooms. Even lesser food hygiene offences will attract fines of up to £3 million.
Anyone running a food business, large or small, has to understand that they are in an extremely responsible position. Customers are putting their trust – and their health – in the hands of the business and the operators must do everything in their power not to betray that trust. Take liberties with food safety to boost profits and you deserve everything the law can throw at you.