DEFRA urged UK egg packers and retailers to ensure the eggs they are selling are correctly labelled as free range, barn, organic and cage or face prosecution after an alleged fraud in the egg sector came to light last month.
The call from DEFRA on 15 November follows the recent arrest of three people in Bromsgrove over alleged breaches of egg marketing rules. The two men and one woman, all in their forties, were arrested on 18 October on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud.
DEFRA officials worked alongside West Mercia police to execute search warrants at a factory in Bromsgrove, which packages and supplies wholesale eggs for Deans Foods, and at two residential properties in Bromsgrove. The three individuals have now been released without charge on bail pending further inquiries.
Finn Cottle, Deans Foods’ group marketing director, confirmed that Michael Kent, chief executive of Deans Foods, was aware of the DEFRA investigation and had suspended any further purchases from the business under investigation. “We took positive action as it was not appropriate to have any dealings with the company,” she added.
DEFRA’s on-going formal investigation and inspection, under the EC Egg Marketing Regulations, is looking into 0.3% of the 9 billion eggs produced in the UK annually – this amounts to 30m free-range eggs. The investigation is focusing on the collection and supply of eggs, not production.
A DEFRA spokesman said that in the course of its investigation “information has come to light confirming that eggs had been incorrectly labelled”. He would not clarify whether this investigation was prompted following a tip-off or through routine egg inspections.
DEFRA decided to make the announcement after it was agreed in meetings with the industry that the issue was a matter of “public interest”. The DEFRA spokesman added: “It was a question of timing. We did not want to be accused of hiding a light under a bushel and then have egg on our face in seven months’ time.”
The British Egg Industry Council and The Free Range Producers Association are supportive of the DEFRA investigation. While animal rights organisations, such as Compassion in World Farming and the RSPCA, said that they were “appalled” by the news of the alleged fraud in the sector, they applauded DEFRA but had concerns over the effect it would have upon consumer confidence in free-range eggs.
A DEFRA spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny whether the business under investigation was Heart of England Eggs.
But general manager at Heart of England Eggs, Richard Light, denied the allegations made in the newspapers as “incorrect”. “This has been blown out of proportion. The papers have linked the company to the investigation but DEFRA hasn’t. They need stories to sell papers. All of the allegations made in the press are incorrect and we are taking legal advice,” said Mr Light.
Heart of England Eggs was subject to a BEIC audit last week and resigned from the Lion Code scheme at 18.30 on 23 November.
How can you check eggs for their origins?
As well as each egg having a code stamped on its surface which states its type, country and producer, DEFRA inspectors can use ultraviolet light to see whether the egg shells have line markings from cages for standard eggs or marks from rest boxes or Astroturf surfaces for free-range eggs.