Poundworld Retail Limited (“Poundworld”) were sentenced at Croydon Crown Court on 9th March 2018 and received fines of £1,160,000 for five food safety offences and two health and safety offences. This is thought to be the highest food safety fine ever imposed.
The offences arose as a result of an inspection on 22 February 2016, following a complaint made by a member of the public. Officers from the London Borough of Croydon attended the Poundworld store at Centrale, Croydon, and found the store to be littered with mouse droppings and with stock that was gnawed through, including products that were clearly intended for children, such as ‘Despicable Me’ chocolate bars. Stock was contaminated with mouse urine and faeces. Much of the contaminated stock was convenience food that would be eaten straight out of the packet, such as popcorn, nuts, chocolate bars and crisps. Consumers were therefore at risk of eating products with hands and fingers contaminated with mouse urine.
In addition to the mouse infestation, the premises were littered with discarded food, dirt and debris from discarded packaging. Stock rooms were crammed full of stock, with almost no lighting, creating the perfect breeding ground for mice. There were holes in the walls allowing mice to roam freely between rooms. Shelving units could only be reached by staff who were climbing across stock and rubbish that was filling the storerooms, leaving no safe walkway. When officers visited one of the stock rooms, a heavy box filled with sticky tape fell from a height and narrowly missed the officer.
Discarded packaging was simply thrown down the stairs into the basement stock rooms, where it accumulated, again creating the perfect nesting ground for rodents. Staff were hastily trying to remove packaging while the officers undertook their visit, but there was no compactor on site, and staff were therefore climbing into bins in a bid to manually press down the rubbish that was accumulating.
A lift at Poundworld that was used to get stock from the basement to the sales floor was out of order. No alternative safe method of moving goods between the floors was in place, and staff were therefore not only lifting the stock up and down stairs, but they were also lifting the heavy pallet pump truck between floors as well. Staff were also at risk of infection from the mouse infestation, as they were handling contaminated stock without any hot water or effective hand washing facilities. The staff rest room was littered with mouse droppings, and the temperature within the store was between 11 and 13 degrees, far below the safe statutory minimum.
The problems at Poundworld in Croydon were longstanding, and had been identified as problematic by pest controllers and health and safety contractors, yet management at Poundworld took no action to resolve the issues until after the inspection took place.
Poundworld were prevented from selling food for eleven days because of the active infestation at the premises. Examination of pest controller records identified the infestation as having been active for almost a year prior to the inspection. Managers were repeatedly told to keep stock off the floor, but this went unheeded. In the immediate aftermath of the inspection, hundreds of glueboards were laid by pest controllers, and 108 mice were recovered from those boards.
Poundworld is classified as a ‘very large organisation’ within the Definitive Guideline for Health and Safety Offences, Corporate Manslaughter and Food Safety and Hygiene Offences, as they had a turnover in excess of £488million. Poundworld sought to argue that the mouse infestation created a low risk of harm to members of the public, because there were no proven cases of infectious diseases being passed to humans by infected mice. The Prosecution led evidence from Professor John Threlfall, and argued that it was rare that serious illnesses were properly investigated, and therefore it was incorrect to assume that there was no risk of infection from mice. Infected mice were known to be carriers of hantavirus, LCMV, salmonella and campylobacter, all of which created serious risks of harm, including fatalities, particularly in the immunocompromised.
HHJ Smaller agreed that there was a low risk of harm, but concluded that if harm occurred, it would be serious, and therefore placed the offences within Category 2 Harm, and attributed high culpability to Poundworld because they fell far short of the appropriate standard of care and had failed to heed the concerns raised by professional contractors and employees alike. HHJ Smaller also accepted that the health and safety offences fell within high culpability, but at the lower end of Harm Category 3.
Poundworld sought to argue that the fines should be low because they operated at a loss, despite their turnover figure of £488million. After hearing lengthy submissions on this point, HHJ Smaller rejected this submission, and instead took the resources of a “linked organisation” into account, as it was demonstrated that Poundworld had been acquired by the TPG Capital Group, who had then sought to rapidly expand Poundworld, thereby creating a loss of profit for intended future growth.
The Judge considered that significant fines were appropriate to ensure that they had an economic impact that reflected the longstanding nature of the breaches that occurred at Poundworld, Croydon. Despite awarding a full third discount for the early guilty pleas, Poundworld Retail Limited were fined a total of £1,160,000 for the seven offences, and ordered to pay costs of £30,409.60, plus a victim surcharge of £120.00.
Francesca Levett is a criminal practitioner who has developed a significant practice in complex fraud and regulatory work over the last sixteen years, whilst maintaining her expertise in serious sex, crime and drugs cases. Francesca both defends and prosecutes, and when prosecuting, undertakes work on behalf of a number of local authorities in pursuing the more complex regulatory prosecutions.