A plan to impose tougher penalties on restaurants, cafes and takeaways infested with pests is good news for North East diners, according to a national trade body.
Business owners found guilty of food safety offences could now face much bigger fines or even jail terms following the introduction of new sentencing guidelines which came into force today.
The British Pest Control Association (BPCA) says restaurants and takeaways which ignore pest management are putting the lives of their customers at risk and hopes the move will ensure every catering business in the area takes their responsibility for pest control seriously.
But it insists stronger punishments will only act as a greater deterrent if they’re imposed across the board, from large organisations to sole traders, on a regular basis.
Simon Forrester, chief executive of the BPCA, said: "The laws governing food hygiene make business owners fully responsible for pest control at their premises.
"Those who ignore it and end up with infestations on their sites should be made to pay the price.
"Sentencing in recent years doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact as harsh penalties have rarely been imposed. So while the move to introduce tougher punishments to those who flout food safety laws is great news for consumers, it must be strictly applied and on a uniform basis.
"Pest management is a primary obligation for owners of every type of food business and we hope the prospect of bigger fines, or even jail in extreme cases, will ensure the subject is now at the top of their agenda."
The new guidelines, published by the Sentencing Council, cover a multitude of food safety and hygiene offences.
Penalties for businesses discovered to have pest infestations will be assessed on a sliding scale depending on a number of factors including the harm it has caused, the potential impact and how far owners have fallen short of expected standards.
Katharine Vickery, a partner and leading food lawyer at Eversheds LLP, said the guidelines represent a shift in the regulatory landscape for owners of businesses.
She said: "Food safety can be a matter of life and death and it’s important as that because serious pest infestations put the public at risk."
"Food safety offences have not been viewed in the same way as other regulatory offences in the past, but these changes reflect the fact they need to be taken more seriously.
"The guidelines now direct courts to impose levels of fines based on the turnover of the business, how blameworthy the business is and the extent of the harm, so the fines imposed should be significantly higher than those currently handed down.
"Very small businesses could now be fined thousands of pounds, rather than hundreds, and larger businesses could be forced to pay millions in serious cases.
"When individuals are prosecuted, there is also a greater chance of custodial sentences being imposed for serious cases."
The BPCA says owners of catering establishments must be made to realise the importance of pest management and the potential impact of ignoring it, both on their customers and their business.
Mr Forrester added: "Restaurants, takeaways and cafes have a responsibility to ensure proper food and hygiene safety procedures are in place and pest management is a key part of that.
"Those with potential issues should act quickly while those who claim to have no problems at the moment would be well advised to ensure their premises are surveyed and proofed.
"I would also urge any businesses with premises next door to a food outlet to ask what pest control contract they have in place. If there’s none, then alarm bells should be ringing."