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Retailers and suppliers face the threat of draconian fines running into tens of millions under new food safety sentencing guidelines being recommended for the courts - despite a big fall in the number of companies being sentenced.

The Sentencing Council cited concerns raised by the FSA that existing fines for food safety and hygiene breaches were inadequate, particularly for large organisations.

It also cited the Elliott Review, which last September highlighted frustration regarding the low level of sanctions following formal action by local authority enforcement officers.

Under the new proposals, companies with a turnover of more than £50m would see a starting point for fines set at £10,000 (where businesses have a low level of culpability) - more than five times the average fine for organisations sentenced in 2013.

The guidelines soar to a starting point of £1.2m for cases where companies have a high level of culpability. And the recommendations state for companies with a turnover higher than £50m the fine might have to be even higher to “achieve a proportionate sentence.”

According to the Sentencing Council, the average fine in food safety cases was about £1,800 in 2013, and has remained fairly stable over the past few years. The number of organisations sentenced for offences fell more than 20% from 2011 to 2013, with fewer than 60 companies sentenced.

Dominic Watkins, a partner at law firm DWF, said retailers and suppliers were demanding to know why fines should go through the roof against this backdrop. “I would expect a large number of cases to be at the higher end of the spectrum, which is alarming, yet the figures clearly show that there are a falling number of companies being sentenced,” he said.