Northamptonshire chef's under-cooked shepherd's pie killed church-goer, 92

Former Head chef John Croucher, whose pie poisoned 32 people
Copyright Hyde News and Pictures
Head chef John Croucher's shepherd's pie poisoned 32 people Credit: Hyde News and Pictures

A church harvest supper ended in tragedy when one of the congregation was killed and 31 others were poisoned by an under-cooked shepherd's pie served up by the head chef of their local pub, a judge heard.

Church-goer Elizabeth Neuman, 92, could not stop vomiting after eating the contaminated pie and died, while 31 of her fellow worshippers all became "unpleasantly ill" after sitting down to the harvest festival supper.

Only three of the congregation escaped food poisoning - because they were all vegetarians.

Head chef of the Crewe Arms John Croucher told a judge at Reading Crown Court that he had "been rushing," which was why corners were cut in the preparation of the shepherd's pie.

Croucher, who no longer works at village pub in Hinton-in-the-Hedges in Northamptonshire, was given a four-month jail sentence, suspended for 12 months, after admitting a charge of contravening food regulations.

He told the court he had been employed to improve standards in the pub kitchen, which had a one-star food hygiene rating at the time.

"I hate to say it, I really hate to say it, but I think I was rushed. I was rushing," said Croucher of the incident in October 2018. "A horrible, horrible circumstance happened and it's something you take with you. I now second guess and third guess everything."

The Crewe Arms in Hinton-in-the-Hedges near Brackley in Northamptonshire Credit: Hyde News and Pictures

Croucher, who said he had been a chef for 20 years, added: "Remorse is an understatement. This is something I will never forget. Because of it, I am a better chef and it is just a shame the cost of it had to be what it was."

The 40-year-old of Ely, Cambridgeshire, said the pub had "worked very hard" after the incident to raise standards and had subsequently achieved a five-star rating.

Pub landlord Neil Billingham, 54, had previously admitted three charges of contravening food regulations. Croucher, who faced one count of contravening food regulations, also admitted the charge when he initially appeared at Wellingborough Magistrates' Court on November 25, 2019.

Billingham, of Angel Street, Northampton, was fined £9,000 and ordered to pay £1,000 court costs. His company, The Bobcat Pub Co, was fined £2,928.98.

Holy Trinity Church saw 32 of its parishioners fall ill Credit: Hyde News and Pictures

'The family do not want retribution'

The judge heard members of the Holy Trinity Church congregation in Hinton-in-the-Hedges did not want retribution against the pub, its landlord or former chef following the tragic effects of the bacteria in the shepherd's pie.

Prosecuting, Carl May-Smith said food safety officers had been trying to help venues in the area with low ratings.

He said: "The pub even had the advantage of coaching from the local authority. Inspections before the offence showed there was no food safety management system in place."

Defending Billingham and his company, the Bobcat Pub Co, Christopher Hopkins told the judge: "You will see that Billingham went to local residents who were affected shortly after, apologising for the incident. He also asks me to express his condolences to the Neuman family on his behalf."

The court heard references to Billingham's good character, including the daughter Mrs Neuman who said: "The whole Hinton family do not want retribution. Billingham made changes after the incident to ensure it would never happen again."

'The mince was not cooked properly'

Sentencing, Judge Campbell, said: "A healthy and well person died of a gastrointestinal haemorrhage induced from vomiting. No sentence I pass can reflect the loss caused to the family.

She added: "Croucher was the chef that night. The mince was not cooked properly and was placed into a pan with iced water. Croucher needed to leave, so put the mince in cling film and put it in the fridge overnight.

"Having left it, he cooked it again and added warm mashed potato. He did not take the temperature when it was served."

She said the pub had worked hard to maintain support from the community.