The Tragic Reason A Chef Was Jailed After Serving Shepherd's Pie

John Croucher, the head chef at The Crewe Arms pub in the village of Hinton-in-the-Hedges in West Northamptonshire, England, has been given a four-month jail sentence. The reason, as The Guardian reports, is that of 35 people who attended a harvest supper at the pub, 32 contracted food poisoning from a contaminated shepherd's pie. Moreover, one of them, a 92-year-old woman, died. The three that emerged from the scene unscathed were vegetarians.

According to Judge Sarah Campbell's summation, Croucher had failed to cook the mince of the pie properly. He partially cooked the meat, then placed it in a pan of ice water. Then he had to leave, so he covered it in plastic wrap and left it overnight in the fridge. He cooked it the next day, adding warm mashed potatoes, but failed to check the temperature of the meat (via Telegraph).

"Remorse is an understatement," Croucher told the court (via Telegraph). "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."

As Judge Campbell said, this was not the first time the pub had issues with food safety, noting that the owner had been fined previously (via The Guardian). "They have all said that this was a one-off mistake but looking at the evidence this was not a one-off mistake," said Campbell. "The pub should have been taking steps to be improving."

How to avoid such a tragedy

The issue with the shepherd's pie was the chef's failure to cook the meat to the right temperature.

The USDA explains that ground beef's "Danger Zone" — the temperature range wherein bacteria proliferate — is between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. To kill any bacteria in your ground beef, you need to cook it to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

Home cooks should not panic if they have plans to make a shepherd's pie. As long as you cook the meat to the right temperature, there should be no problems. The issue with the Croucher case was that the meat was partially cooked beforehand, left in the fridge, and then reheated. As the USDA warns, "The partial cooking of food ahead of time allows harmful bacteria to survive and multiply to the point that subsequent cooking cannot destroy them."

Again, though, if you are simply cooking supper or if an establishment operates according to proper food regulations, shepherd's pie should be a safe meal.