Keith Owen, boss of egg-packing firm Heart of England Eggs, was prosecuted by the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) after an investigation showed he was importing battery eggs from France, Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany and passing them off as British, free-range, and organic.
The scam ran between June 2004 and May 2006, and according to our sister publication The Grocer some 36m eggs were falsely sold to supermarkets and other retailers as free range over this time.
It is not thought that the eggs were sold to food ingredient suppliers and manufacturers, but to consumers directly. However the issue shows up the importance of traceability at all levels of the food supply chain.
UK retailers have stopping or phasing out the sale of battery eggs for a number of years, ahead of a ban due to come into force in 2012.
Owen pleaded guilty of the fraud, which Defra has said is the largest it has ever encountered. A Worcester Crown Court Judge Toby Hooper QC said the 44-year-old defendant had abused the ''well-intentioned” trust of the public.
In addition to the jail sentence, Owen was ordered to pay £250,000 in costs and a £3 million confiscation order. He has 12 months to pay the latter or face a six-and-a-half years more in prison.
Owen sought to cover up the rotten trick by creating a false paper trail of documents and invoices. But he was found out after a number of people reported their suspicions – including some lorry drivers who picked up loads of eggs from the company.
Defra launched an investigation, as did the Egg Marketing Inspectorate. The investigation involved testing eggs under ultraviolet light, which shows up marks associated with cage-rearing.
Defra’s lawyer Amanda Pinto, QC, said: "The ultimate customer, a member of the public buying these eggs, would have received inferior quality eggs – sometimes even eggs not fit for sale to the public – or eggs produced by hens kept without the stringent welfare requirements of schemes from which they were said to benefit."
Owen’s defense lawyers argued that the fraud had not had any adverse effect on public health.
Owen is estimated to have purchased the battery eggs at 35p a dozen, and sold them to supermarkets for 99p a dozen.
Not a problem anymore
Mark Williams, chief executive of the British Egg Council told BBC’s radio programme Farming Today that he is confident that lessons have been learned since Heart of England was found out, and new plans to ensure eggs’ integrity have been hatched.
These audits include unannounced audits of egg packing firms, the tracking and tracing of eggs via a new database, and on-farm marking of eggs.