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Butcher fined after listeria found in meat products

The former operator of a butchery business was ordered to pay a fine of £25,000 plus £40,000 in costs after a listeria outbreak linked to his Nottinghamnshire premises put public health at risk.

Robert Bowring (58) of Bowring Butchers in Mansfield Woodhouse was also prohibited from managing any food business in the future when he was sentenced at Nottingham Crown Court on 22 February 2022. The order will prevent him from managing food processes and food production but he will still be able to do tasks such as making deliveries.

Robert Bowring had admitted all eight food safety and hygiene charges in court last year but sentencing was delayed until now.

Mansfield District Council prosecuted Robert Bowring, of Sookholme, after an investigation by its Environmental Health team found Listeria monocytogenes present in cooked meat products and on food production equipment at the premises on High Street, Mansfield Woodhouse. Various unsafe food production practices were also observed. Robert Bowring was the owner and registered food operator of the business at the time of the investigation in April 2019.

The eight charges brought under the Food Safety and Hygiene (England) Regulations 2013 were that he:

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  • placed unsafe food on the market with inadequate production processes and use by dates.
  • failed to comply with requirements to ensure the production, processing and distribution of food was protected against contamination likely to render the food unfit for human consumption.
  • failed to put in place and maintain permanent procedures based on accepted food hygiene principles.
  • failed to keep the premises clean and maintained in good repair and condition.
  • failed to effectively and adequately clean and, where necessary, disinfect all articles, fittings and equipment with which food comes into contact.
  • failed to ensure that food handlers were supervised and trained in food hygiene matters.
  • failed to ensure that food produced complied with microbiological regulations.
  • failed to carry out studies to investigate compliance with the microbiological criteria throughout shelf life.

At sentencing, Barrister Tim Pole on behalf of the council, said: “Many of the failings had been highlighted on previous inspections and yet there was a failure to address those shortcomings and to comply with the law in a manner that can properly be described as flagrant.

“There was an obvious and high risk of cross contamination between raw and cooked areas. There appears to have been a deliberate attempt to conceal the failure to accurately record use-by dates and there was a deliberate attempt to mislead the public as to the issues the business faced.”

The council launched its investigation on 2 April 2019 after being informed by PHE East Midlands (now UKHSA) that genome sequencing had linked two cases of listeriosis. The suspected source was Bowring Butchers and, in particular, concerns were raised about potted beef.

An inspection of the premises revealed the following hazards that presented a risk:

  • Cross contamination was not adequately controlled between raw and ready-to-eat food preparation areas.
  • The stairs handrail between the two areas was used by both staff preparing raw meat and staff preparing ready-to-eat food, presenting an obvious risk of cross contamination.
  • Once produced, the potted beef was given a seven-day shelf life, but no records to support this shelf life have ever been produced.
  • Officers found dirt in the equipment used in the production of the potted beef.

Officers found there was no record of when various ready-to-eat products had been produced and many were not labelled with a use-by date. The officers were told that the production dates were recorded in a black book kept behind the counter but the court heard this book was never produced during the investigation.

Despite the council recommending that the shop closed for a deep clean, it was still trading the following day. The shop closed on 26 April 2019 after Robert Bowring signed a Voluntary Closure Agreement.

Officers were told that a quantity of sliced cooked meat had been sold over the counter on the 24 and 25 April, and that two care homes – Thistle Hill Hall, Mansfield Woodhouse, and Sherwood Grange, Edwinstowe, had been supplied with meat on 24 April.

Officers visited the shop during the clean and advised that cracked walls and floor surfaces should be thoroughly cleaned and sealed. The shop was advised to dispose of a dirty, mouldy fridge and to surrender its sandwich filler contents along with salad items found in the raw meat chiller, and 32 vacuum packed joints of cooked meat which either had no use by dates or use-by dates that had expired.

The court was told about the death of Kathleen Ferguson who had been admitted to hospital after becoming ill. Listeria bacteria were found in a blood sample, which confirmed a diagnosis of listeriosis although her cause of death was recorded as heart disease. DNA profiling revealed that the bacteria found in Kathleen’s blood was from the same common source as those found in samples taken in Bowring’s premises, where Kathleen was a regular customer.

After test results confirmed listeria contamination, the shop was advised to voluntarily recall all cooked sliced meat and potted beef spread. They were told the product recall notice had to be displayed on site and that a statement should be made on the shop’s Facebook page advising customers not to consume any of the affected products. Council officers found no product recall notice displayed and a misleading notice in the shop door suggesting the closure was due to “emergency electrical and maintenance issues”. As a result of the misleading information on the company’s Facebook page, the notice was published on the council’s website and social media channels.

The premises was allowed to reopen for the sale of raw meat products on the 7 May 2019 after sampling results showed that the cleaning had been effective. The production and sale of ready-to-eat products were not permitted until officers were satisfied appropriate control measures were in place.

In mitigation, Barrister Julia Kendrick, said that Robert Bowring took full responsibility for what happened. She said he was devastated and sincerely apologised.
The court heard a consultant had been appointed, a full refit of the premises had taken place, staff had been trained and new processes and procedures were in place. She said Robert Bowring had stepped back from the day-to-day running of the business, which he’d handed over to his children.

The court was told the Mansfield Woodhouse shop has a current Food Hygiene rating of four. Character references described Robert Bowring as a kind, loving, generous family man who had a strong work ethic, as well as selflessness, honesty and integrity.

Sentencing, Judge Godsmark QC said although Mrs Ferguson died with, rather than of, listeriosis, the consequences could have been potentially serious, particularly for vulnerable and elderly people in care homes. He said Robert Bowring wasn’t an evil man and hadn’t put profit before safety. He said he had a blind spot and let things slip and if he had taken on too much he should have employed someone.

Cllr Marion Bradshaw, Portfolio Holder for Safer Communities, Housing and Wellbeing, said: “We are very pleased with the outcome in this successful prosecution, which is one of the biggest environmental health investigations the council has ever had.

“It involved months of painstaking work by our Environmental Health officers, working closely with Public Health England (now known as UKHSA) and neighbouring local authorities. Our response shows how far we will go to protect the public from unsafe practices by food outlets who have the ultimate duty of care towards their customers.

“This case serves as a reminder to food businesses that they have a legal duty to follow food hygiene law and we will always seek to take enforcement action where there is a risk to public health.”

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