Page last updated at 15:54 GMT, Thursday, 11 March 2010

Businessman jailed for organic and free-range egg scam

A businessman has been jailed for three years for masterminding a scam which saw tens of millions of battery hen eggs sold as free-range or organic.

Keith Owen, who admitted three charges under the Theft Act, was told by a judge at Worcester Crown Court he had abused "well-intentioned" public trust.

The eggs were sold in supermarkets and other stores across England.

Owen, 44, of Warbage Lane, Dodford, Worcestershire, has been ordered to repay £3m, plus £250,000 in costs.

Judge Toby Hooper QC told him he had to settle the confiscation order within 12 months, or face a further six-and-a-half years in prison.

Imprisonment there must be, because the offences are plainly so serious that only a sentence of imprisonment will suffice
Judge Toby Hooper QC

Earlier this month Owen, who ran Heart of England Eggs Unlimited, admitted providing false information for accounting purposes to firms in the egg supply sector between June 2004 and May 2006.

Officials estimate that as many as 100 million eggs were falsely labelled.

The court heard he sold battery and "industrial" eggs imported from France and Ireland to suppliers.

They were told the eggs were British, free range, organic or that they met the RSPCA's Freedom Food welfare standards.

Judge Hooper said Owen's business had made very substantial profits at the expense of consumers who believed they were buying free-range eggs.

He paid as little as 35p per dozen and sold the same eggs on to suppliers and supermarkets for more than twice that amount.

He said: "Imprisonment there must be, because the offences are plainly so serious that only a sentence of imprisonment will suffice.

"This was all a carefully-planned and executed fraud by false accounting.

"By greed, you have corrupted and destroyed the once-legitimate business which you have known all your life."

After Owen was jailed, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which brought the prosecution, urged consumers to report any concerns they had about free-range eggs and promised to weed out unscrupulous suppliers.

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