Published: 17:00, 25 July 2017
Diners enjoying their meals at a prestigious hotel owned by Shepherd Neame were unaware there were rats running around the kitchen, beer cellar and laundry room, a court heard.
Senior environmental health officer Justene Lawal visited The Royal Wells Hotel in Tunbridge Wells on June 8 last year, after a tip-off that rats were coming up from the basement into the kitchen.
General manager Martin Lyall told her a pest control company, Mitie, had been attending the hotel for some months.
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He identified a number of issues that required immediate attention to prevent contamination and arranged to return when the Mitie contractor was present.
Two days later, Mr Lyall confirmed the issues had been dealt with.
But when Mrs Lawal returned on June 15, she found widespread rat infestation in the basement with rat droppings in food storage areas and a dead rat in a trap.
In the laundry room, tables were on the floor next to rat entry holes and there were rat droppings in the cleaning store which housed the hotel’s water filter, and in the beer cellar.
One of the chefs told Mrs Lawal that rats were running around the kitchen every day.
There were numerous holes throughout the basement that allowed the rats entry, all of which led to the company being fined £160,000.
Mrs Lawal returned the same day with her manager Nollaig Halhan and together they conducted a full inspection which also revealed dirty surfaces, dirty sinks, and drains full of grease.
Rat droppings were found alongside supposedly cleaned crockery and stored Christmas decorations were covered with 300 droppings.
Shepherd Neame offered to sign a Voluntary Food Business Closure Agreement rather than have the officers issue a prohibition notice that would have forced the hotel to close.
Once the galley kitchen had been thoroughly cleaned, the company was allowed to continue to serve pre-cooked and packed breakfasts to the guests, but no main meals.
The ban was lifted after a further inspection on June 23 after Mitie set 317 glue-traps to catch the rats.
Lee Bennett, defending, said: ”Most importantly, the company wishes to apologise.”
He asked district judge Justin Barron, presiding over the case at Medway Magistrates court to take account of the fact that Shepherd Neame had no convictions from any of its 50 or more premises.
It was not the case that the company had done nothing about the problem, it had engaged Mitie to address the issues and was disappointed in their approach.
Mr Bennett said the risk to health from rats was low and there was no evidence food had actually been contaminated or any harm caused.
District Judge Justin Barron said he accepted Shepherd Neame was a reputable company with no previous convictions.
”Nevertheless,” he said, “It’s not acceptable that this problem should have been allowed to continue for so long.
“The company did not sufficiently ensure its own systems were adhered to.”
He fined Shepherd Neame £40,000 on each offence, totalling £160,000, and ordered it to pay £9,988 prosecution costs.
A subsequent audit by chartered environmental health professional Dr Lisa Ackerly concluded the company’s health and safety policies were in place and were satisfactory, but they had not been properly implemented.
The court heard there had been failures in communication between staff members, pest control firm Mitie, and the company’s head office.
Documents from Mitie showed the firm had attended 21 times between October 10, 2015 and June 1, 2016, to deal with the pest issue.
After the hearing, Shepherd Neames’ property and service director George Barnes said: “We accept the court’s findings.
"We apologise and we have taken steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
The Royal Wells Hotel in Mount Ephraim was purchased by Shepherd Neame in September 2012.
The company carried out a £2.4 million refurbishment, completed in May 2015, but the refurbishment did not extend to the basement of the Victorian building.
The hotel, with its 27 ensuite rooms, is a popular venue for wedding receptions.
It previously held the highest rating of five on the National Food Hygiene Rating. That was reduced to zero after the June inspection last year.
The venue is currently graded at 3, after a November (2016) inspection. The level indicates it has satisfactory procedures for preparing food, storing it safely and cleanliness.
Tunbridge Wells councillor Dr Ronen Basu, cabinet member with responsibility for sustainability, said: "This disregard for even the most basic standards of hygiene and food safety put people's health at risk.
"Whilst I acknowledge their apology, I think it entirely reasonable that the owners should be held to account and fined.
"Residents can be reassured that Tunbridge Wells Borough Council is working in their best interests and the council will take action if public health is put at risk."
Justene Lawal, a senior environmental health officer in the council’s food team, who carried out the investigation, said: "Things have moved on at the Royal Wells, there are new managers in place who have a positive approach to working with us which we are very pleased about.
"The council’s environmental health food team is always happy to work with businesses to ensure they meet the standards expected of them and help them avoid the risk of prosecution."
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