A CWMBRAN meat processing company has been fined £15,000 after admitting that a number of its frozen products were past their use-by date.
Douglas Willis Ltd, based on Grange Road Industrial Estate in Cwmbran, initially denied 23 charges related to the labelling of frozen meat, but admitted 12 charges at Caerphilly Magistrates Court today.
The company, which employs 41 people, had a turnover of £7.1 million last year.
In December 2010, inspectors from Torfaen council’s trading standards team visited the company's Cwmbran meat processing plant, after a customer of Douglas Willis Ltd said that spicy meatballs they'd bought were past their use-by date.
Inspectors found a number of packages of frozen meat labelled with use-by dates which had passed, and the case went to court in June 2011, where it was dismissed.
The council appealed and the case went on to the Supreme Court, who ruled it should return to the lower courts as it was sufficient for the prosecution to prove the company intended to sell meat that had passed its use-by date.
Today the company admitted 12 charges of selling food after the use-by date shown - including beef calves, duck legs, liver, Polish sausage, beef burgers, wild Scottish venison, chicken and duck breast fillet.
The prosecution offered no evidence on the remaining 11 charges.
Iain McDonald, prosecuting, told the court that a "best before" date is a quality indicator, whereas a "use-by" date is for highly perishable foods only. Businesses can freeze products, but must apply to the original producer to extend the product's use-by date.
Regulations are due to soon change so businesses must display the date on which the product was frozen, but this was not in place at the time.
"It was their responsibility to maintain the integrity of the labelling chain," said Mr McDonald.
He said no assessment was carried out by trading standards as to whether the products were unfit for human consumption.
"It's the risk that products harmful to human consumption would get into the food chain," he said.
Graham Walters, mitigating, said: "These are labelling offences. There's no evidence to show that the products were unsafe. The Supreme Court had to clarify the law in this area. By the [guilty] pleas the defence accept that they would not reasonably expect this court to conclude in their favour."
Regarding the meatballs that sparked the original investigation, he said the company sought permission to change the label but did not seek it from the original producer, as they should have done.
"No products selected for onward sale is the subject of a charge," he said, adding that the company has very detailed risk assessment and documentation processes when stock comes in and regularly sends off samples for microbiological testing. Checks on freezers have been tightened up and all labels are now kept on file, he said.
District Judge Richard Williams said the offences were of omission, so culpability was "much less".
He fined the company £1,500 per offence but granted a reduction of £250 per offence, amounting to a £15,000 fine in total. The company must pay a £15 victim surcharge and agreed to pay £12,000 prosecution costs.
Speaking after sentencing, head of Torfaen trading standards Steve Whitehouse said: "The company has taken on board what we have said to them and the advice we've given. The whole Food Safety Act is to do with mitigating any potential risk to the consumer. Hopefully in the future their products meet the standards we all try to achieve."
Sean Willis, managing director of Douglas Willis Ltd and grandson of the original founder, said he was glad the case was over.
"I don't want [the case] to go on any longer," he said. "We hold our hands up to a certain extent. I've had a lot of emails and good wishes before today from customers saying 'we will support you, we will stand by you' after explaining what it was. Let's draw a line under it and move on."