It should have been the sort of pleasant harvest festival gathering celebrated each year by the congregation of Holy Tinity Church in the tiny Northamptonshire village of Hinton-in-the-Hedges.
But the church supper ended in tragedy when, after a chef cut corners in his preparation so he could leave work, 92-year-old Elizabeth Neuman died of severe food poisoning.
Thirty one other guests at the harvest supper suffered severe side effects after eating the shepherd’s pie served by the head chef at the local Crewe Arms pub, with only the three vegetarians present escaping unscathed.
The chef, John Croucher, had partially cooked the meat before placing it in cold water and a fridge overnight, in contravention of basic cooking safety advice, thus failing to destroy any bacteria present.
The next day he neglected to take the temperature of the dish before serving it, again failing to ensure the meat had been cooked properly, the court heard.
Chef escapes with suspended jail sentence
Croucher has now been handed a four month jail sentence, suspended for 12 months, at Reading Crown Court after admitting a charge of contravening food regulations.
He told the court that he had been “rushing” when preparing the meal and said that he was now “a better chef” as a result of the incident.
Head chef John Croucher prepared the shepherd's pie that gave 32 people severe food poisoning
Mrs Neuman died in October 2018 after the contaminated pie, which was not cooked properly, left her unable to stop vomiting.
Her death came after the Crewe Arms had received poor hygiene score from the local council, with staff being given coaching from hygiene inspectors on the need for a good food management system.
Sentencing Croucher, Judge Sarah Campbell, said: "On October 8, 2018, 35 villagers went to the Crewe Arms for a harvest meal. Thirty-two people ate the shepherd’s pie.
"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.
"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.”
Judge Campbell added that the community around the pretty stone-built pub had no desire to extract retribution against its landlord Neil Billingham or Croucher himself following the tragic effects of the bacteria in the shepherd’s pie.
‘This was not a one-off mistake’
She said: "The Crewe Arms is an important pub to the local community. I have read many references from members of the community, who all say Mr Billingham worked hard to maintain the support of the community, including Ms Neuman’s daughter.
"They have all said that this was a one-off mistake but looking at the evidence this was not a one-off mistake. The pub should have been taking steps to be improving. Inspections in 2015 gave it three stars and in 2017 gave it only a one-star."
The harvest festival gathering is celebrated each year by the congregation of Holy Tinity Church
Croucher, 40, who had been a chef for more than 20 years, now lives with his brother in Ely, Cambridgeshire, and represented himself at the trial, appearing in the dock next to Billingham.
He told the Judge: “A horrible, horrible circumstance happened and it’s something you take with you. I now second guess and third guess everything.
"I never had a coaching session when I was working for the Crewe Arms. I hate to say it, I really hate to say it, but I think I was rushed. I was rushing. After the incident we all worked very hard to get the Crewe Arms five stars. We went for it and we obtained it. We got very good marks.
"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 court heard how Billingham, director of the Bobcat Co Pub Ltd which owned the pub at the time of the food poisoning, was currently working as a point-to-point delivery driver and trying to pay off a £200,000 mortgage taken out for when his company first bought the Crewe Arms in 2013. The court heard he also owed money to the HMRC.