The UK Supreme Court has delivered judgment in a prosecution of a company for selling food after its use-by date had passed. 

In June 2011, Torfaen Borough Council inspected the premises of meat processing business, Douglas Willis Limited, where packets of frozen meat were found with use-by dates expired by up to three years.

The company was charged with the criminal offence of selling food passed its use-by date contrary to national food labelling regulations.

The Magistrates Court ruled that the company had no case to answer as the prosecution failed to prove that at the date of the alleged offence the frozen meat required a use-by day, i.e. that it was highly perishable and likely after a short period to present an immediate danger to human health. This decision raised eyebrows as to the efficacy of the ‘use-by’ regime in the UK. 

The decision of the Magistrates Court was unanimously reversed on appeal, with the Supreme Court concluding that in order to successfully prosecute the company, the Council only had to prove that:

  • the company had food in its possession which was intended for sale
  • the food had a ‘use-by’ date, and
  • the use-by date had passed

The Supreme Court held that to also require the food in question to be in a highly perishable state at the time of the alleged offence would significantly undermine the regulatory regime and the protection afforded to consumers.  It would permit retailers of perishable food which had passed its use-by date to freeze it and to sell it on to the consumer without the consumer knowing how long it had been unfrozen.

The case was referred back to Magistrates Court level to be reheard by a differently composed court according to the law as stated by the Supreme Court.

Irish food labelling rules derive from EU law and do not differ greatly from those in the UK.  It is likely therefore that this decision would be highly persuasive in the event that a similar case was to come before the Irish courts.