Businessman jailed for selling battery hen eggs as free range

Produce imported from France and Ireland repackaged to carry organic and Freedom Food labels

A businessman who passed off tens of millions of battery hen eggs as free range and sold them to supermarkets and stores across the country was yesterday jailed for three years.

Worcester Crown Court heard that Keith Owen sold "industrial" eggs imported from France and Ireland to other suppliers, who were told that they were British, free range, organic or that they met the RSPCA's Freedom Food welfare standards. He was rumbled after lorry drivers visiting his business, Heart of England Eggs Unlimited, realised that they were being forced to wait while eggs they had just delivered were "repackaged" as free range.

Sentencing Owen, who admitted three charges under the Theft Act in relation to the fraud, Judge Toby Hooper QC said that the 44-year-old defendant had abused the "well-intentioned" trust of the public.

Opening the case against Owen, Amanda Pinto QC told the court: "Over a number of years the defendant dishonestly and systematically passed off millions of battery farm eggs as free range. 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."

Explaining how the investigation had been aided by the drivers, Ms Pinto said one of the men became suspicious after delivering 26 pallets of caged eggs to Owen's firm. "He waited for four-and-a-half hours while the cage eggs he had delivered went over the grading machine – later his lorry was reloaded," Ms Pinto told the court.

"It was apparent to him that the eggs had merely been 'turned around' and put back on his vehicle on blue pallets, indicating that the eggs were free range."

Investigations conducted by the Egg Marketing Inspectorate, which began in 2004, found that Owen was supplying eggs with false paperwork. Tests on eggs were then conducted under ultra-violet light, allowing investigators to see wire-marks which are only left on the shells of caged hens' eggs.

It is estimated that Owen, who was buying caged eggs at around 35p per dozen and selling them on for up to 90p per dozen, may have wrongly passed off around 100 million eggs.