This article provides an update on the recent high-profile finding of guilt against Woolworths (South Australia) Pty Ltd in a food prosecution earlier this year. That case is one of an increasing number of successful prosecutions under South Australian food legislation, and demonstrates the value in pursuing persons and companies who violate food safety laws.

The Woolworths case

A Woolworths store in Murray Bridge sold a ready-to-eat meal 13 days after its use-by date. The purchaser only noticed the use-by-date after having consumed the meal, and made a complaint to the Rural City of Murray Bridge (Council) the next day. An officer of the Council attended the store to inspect the relevant product. The officer found another identical product with the same use-by date as that complained of – making it now 14 days out-of-date. The officer was also able to purchase the item.

The matter proceeded in the Adelaide Magistrates Court where the Council (instructing Norman Waterhouse) successfully prosecuted the company. The prosecution resulted in Woolworths being found guilty and incurring a $7,500 fine, as well as a large amount of publicity in the local and national media. At the time of imposing sentence, the Magistrate acknowledged this publicity would outweigh any fine he could impose in the case of such a large company.

Since the commencement of the proceedings, the particular Woolworths store has retrained staff regarding date code checks.

What it means for all Councils

Local government regulatory and compliance officers are responsible for seeking compliance with laws designed to improve the quality of life of the public at large. An important part of seeking compliance with laws is deterrence, both on an individual level (specific deterrence) and a general level (general deterrence).

The laws with which environmental health officers are responsible for seeking compliance have a particularly direct correlation to quality of life. Serious breaches of food legislation can gravely impact health on a large scale.

This prosecution shows the importance of pursuing complaints for the purposes of securing specific deterrence (the relevant Woolworths store promptly retrained staff). Furthermore, this prosecution illustrates that following through prosecutions right until the end can also be highly effective for general deterrence – the publicity will likely influence other nearby food businesses and perhaps also other food businesses (particularly larger businesses) even further afield.

A successful prosecution of food-related offences safeguards community health and is one of the more visible ways to reassure the community that Council environmental health officers are fulfilling their important roles.

Norman Waterhouse has significant experience and expertise in the conducting of Council prosecutions regarding food and public health law, and other regulatory matters.