The owner of a Warwickshire butcher’s shop who cheated customers by labelling and selling imported meat as ‘best British’ pork, chicken, beef and lamb is behind bars.
And Simon Drust’s business, The Meat Shack in Studley, was fined £300,000 for its part in the fraud and ordered to pay Warwickshire Trading Standards’ costs in bringing the case.
After initially denying the charges, Drust (51) of St Johns Close, Studley, pleaded guilty at Warwick Crown Court to offences of fraud and fraudulent trading.
And The Meat Shack, based at the Spernal Garden Centre in Alcester Road, Studley, pleaded guilty to fraud and ‘engaging in commercial practices which contravened the requirements of professional diligence.’
Drust was jailed for two years and nine months, while as well as the £300,000 fine, the company was ordered to pay the £54,527 costs of the investigation and prosecution.
In addition, Deputy Judge Richard Griffith-Jones ordered £127,690 in bank accounts which had been subject to a restraint order to be confiscated under the Proceeds of Crime Act.
Drust’s partner and company secretary Susan Mitchell (53) of the same address, has been given a police caution, and the charges she had faced were allowed to lie on the court file.
Prosecuting on behalf of Warwickshire Trading Standards, Tony Watkin said that for many years Drust was a market trader, selling meat from a mobile butchery vehicle, before setting up The Meat Shack with Mitchell in 2014.
In April 2015 it was incorporated, and the charges reflected a course of conduct both before and after that date.
“It traded very successfully in terms of turnover. It was presented as a farm shop selling local and organic produce.”
Adverts were placed online and in local newspapers emphasising that all the meat and poultry it sold was British.
The trigger for a Trading Standards investigation came in January 2015 when a woman bought a packet of chicken breasts labelled ‘British,’ and then found a Netherlands label underneath.
A Trading Standards officer visited the shop and found tubs of chicken with the same mislabelling.
After The Meat Shack’s incorporation, the farm shop was refitted with Union Jacks throughout, and adverts claimed it sold ‘local wholesome food’ and British beef, pork, lamb and chicken.
But checks with The Meat Shack’s suppliers showed it was buying large quantities of New Zealand lamb, Dutch and Danish gammon, Dutch and Belgian chicken, and Brazilian and Irish beef.
The annual turnover at that time was around £350,000 – and in June 2016 the fraudulent activity intensified with Drust’s purchase of a set of scales that could print its own labels.
“He was buying meat, foreign meat, and repackaging it and relabelling it as British local produce,” said Mr Watkin.
A Trading Standards officer’s visit in September revealed mislabelling as well as the sale of out-of-date food, and on a further visit in November Drust was caught red-handed relabelling Irish beef as UK beef, and Spanish pork as free range UK pork.
“It was operating as a fraud factory, and the defendant was very much in the middle of what was happening.”
And Mr Watkin added that Drust had a single previous conviction when, about 20 years ago, he was fined £7,000 for an offence of mislabelling.
Saying that he was going to try to persuade the judge to pass a suspended sentence, Quentin Hunt, defending, argued: “If one looks at the advertisements, one can see there are the false pieces of advertising in terms of being British.
“But price is a major factor in this business, and it is not known what proportion of people who bought mislabelled meat would have bought it in any event.”
He handed in references, including some from customers, and said Drust supported charitable works through the business, which was now ‘clean and compliant,’ and laboratory reports show the standard of the meat it sells to be satisfactory.
“Lessons have been learned, and this is a gentleman who is unlikely to trouble the courts again.”
Mr Hunt said that after the guilty pleas were entered, the banks closed all accounts in the name of Meat Shack Studley Ltd and in Drust’s name, and the company was going through the crucial Christmas period unable to process transactions.
So Drust’s partner effectively started another concern which took over the premises and was able to open an account to continue trading and to pay off creditors.
“In respect of Mr Drust, I am instructed to apologise to the court and to the public in general. It was never his intention to defraud people when he set up this business.
“The attendant bad publicity has hit the business very badly indeed, and I am sure that will continue. They used to employ ten staff, now there are three staff at the premises.”
Jailing Drust, Judge Griffith-Jones told him: “You have conducted a business that has provided employment for people. It has, certainly since these matters came to light, been conducted in a compliant and hygienic way – and indeed it is not suggested there was a lack of hygiene at all in this fraud.
“However, you intended to make gains for yourself and consequent losses to others by fraud.
“You did it by tricking people into engaging in transactions by pretending that the meat they were to buy was of British origin and had a good animal welfare background.
“In addition, legitimate businesses who would have higher overheads, advertising the very same products as you, would lose out. So you damaged the very lines of commerce that would have the good effect people want.
“You did this not just briefly, but over a sustained period of time. There were warning by reason of visits, which you reacted to by ramping up the fraudulent activity.”