Volunteers who give hot meals to homeless people in Dorchester have spoken of the ‘ludicrous’ situation after they were were threatened with prosecution.

Members of the public-spirited Help for Homeless group have been allowed to carry on their community effort – but should now only serve vegetarian food.

The group have been advised by council officials that serving cooked meat and fish is too much of a risk for food poisoning. Rice and surplus sandwiches the volunteers are given by a local café to hand out are also deemed a ‘high risk food group.’

Members of the group say they were told they would have to obtain health and food hygiene certificates. And the eight volunteers who take it in turns to cook the food in their own homes face having their kitchens inspected by a council food hygiene officer.

The free service for homeless people has been run for the last four years by Luke Bird and Rebecca Hobby.

The volunteers, who include a nurse, a farmer and a postman, cook meals like shepherds pie and chicken curry and hand it out in takeaway containers outside Dorchester library every Monday and Friday lunchtime. But a week ago they received a visit by a Dorset Council health official and a police officer.

Miss Hobby said they were told they would have to stop as they needed a food hygiene certificate to hand out the food. The PC warned them they could ‘end up in the dock’ if someone suffered accidental food poisoning. Dorset Police has since apologised for the remark.

As reported, the council has now met with Mr Bird and Miss Hobby to tell them they can continue but with certain recommendations in place.

Miss Hobby, 39, said after the meeting: “The council is allowing us to continue but we have to have health and hygiene certificates. We also have to register as a food business, even though we do this for free. Our volunteers will have to have their kitchens inspected in the future.

“In the meantime we have been told we can’t serve meat, fish and rice because they are a high risk for food poisoning. We also aren’t allowed to give out leftover sandwiches. It is a load of gobbledegook but if we ignore them and carry on we would be liable if there was a case of food poisoning.

“The council did apologise for the way that we were spoken to during their visit and they explained it wasn’t meant to be a shut down visit but more of an advisory one.”

Helper Stuart Campbell, a 46-year-old postman, said: “We are just trying to give hungry people a hot meal and they are chucking all this red tape at us. For some people these are the only hot meals they get. It seems ludicrous that the council is okay with homeless people eating food out of bins but not having a hot meal served by us.”

Council is supportive of venture

As reported in the Echo, Dorset Council insisted it had not closed down the service, but had been working with the group to give food safety advice, find an appropriate location and to protect vulnerable people.

It investigated following complaints and the service was temporarily stopped.

A spokesman for Dorset Council said: “We helped the food run service register their organisation, provided advice and guidance regarding food safety and safeguarding, and made sure the volunteers have the means of getting further support from us in the future should they need it.

“Perhaps most importantly, we have advised that they can continue to operate.

“We have been supportive of this venture throughout and would like to thank the organisers for taking the time to meet with us and we wish them all the best with this great service.”

At a town council meeting in Dorchester, town clerk Adrian Stuart said the ‘issue’ had been primarily around the need for a food hygiene certificate for volunteers. An alternative location had also been investigated.

Cllr Les Fry said he had found comments on Facebook criticising the police and the councils ‘regrettable’ when help was being offered to get the necessary food hygiene advice to allow the service to continue.