Two men jailed over horsemeat scam

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Horse meat court case

Two men have been jailed for their part in a conspiracy to sell 30 tonnes of horsemeat as beef, most of which entered the food chain.

Andronicos Sideras, 55, one of the owners of meat manufacturer Dinos & Sons, mixed the products together before the mixture was sold to other firms in a plot that deceived consumers and food processors.

Ulrik Nielsen, 58, the Danish owner of FlexiFoods, bought horsemeat and beef from suppliers across Europe and had it delivered to Dinos in Tottenham, north London.

Nielsen's "right-hand man", Alex Beech, 44, arranged for the shipments to be transferred and handled the accounting.

The majority of the meat, including some from farm horses not sold for slaughter, made it into the food chain and, while the face value of the fraud was £177,869, police said the true cost had probably run into millions of pounds.

Sideras, of Southgate, north London, was found guilty of one count of conspiracy to defraud between January 1 and November 30 2012 and was jailed at Inner London Crown Court for four years and six months.

Nielsen and Beech, who had already pleaded guilty to the same charge, were sentenced to three years and six months in jail and 18 months suspended for 12 months respectively.

Judge Owen Davies QC said: "It was not confined to this country, not confined to the firms we have heard about, and it's a big issue for the public to be concerned about, but the fact is it was discovered by accident and only emerged as a problem because of your activity.

"It's not a mitigating factor, in my judgment, that other people were at it as well as you."

In 2013 UK supermarkets were rocked by the horsemeat contamination crisis, with products labelled as beef and other meats found to contain various amounts of horse flesh.

Speaking to the defendants, who had their heads bowed throughout, Judge Davies said: "It's difficult to recall now the conditions that made this horsemeat scandal headline news every day five years ago but it made an impact on the public in general.

"They were suspicious of the food that they had - it extended far beyond meat.

"The confidence in the food chain was affected adversely and the share prices of big supermarkets was affected and it is difficult to recreate the feeling of anxiety that the public had at the time this all emerged.

"It was not an activity that was brought to an end by anything other than the arrest of the perpetrators.

"The victims in question, properly so-called, of conspiracy to defraud were customers, either wholesalers or the customers of the markets and supermarkets who bought an item that was not what it said it was."

Prosecutor Jonathan Polnay said the scandal had led to a "crisis of confidence" in the food supply chain which hit sales and there were a "very, very large number of victims" in this case.

He said: "This offending was but a part of the wider horsemeat scandal.

"In terms of high impact, while there is no suggestion the meat was unfit for human consumption, it carried a potentially high public health risk.

"Had there been, not a criminal problem, but a health problem, it would be impossible to trace it because the records had been falsified."

Beech had not been in on the scheme from the outset and at one stage questioned his boss and plot "ringleader" Nielsen about prices but later, Mr Polnay said, went on to falsify identification labels that were approved by the Dane.

At the time, beef could be sold at a wholesale price of three euros per kilogram, while horsemeat was cheaper at two euros per kilogram.

The trio's plot was discovered in September 2012 when Newry and Mourne District Council health inspectors made an unannounced visit to a Freeza Meat store in Newry, Northern Ireland, and found a third of the pallets contained horsemeat.

Of that consignment, Mr Polnay said: "In fact this was a mess up. Sideras got it wrong."

Police would later sift through 12 tonnes of meat by hand and horse ID chips, roughly the size of a grain of rice, were found. They belonged to two horses named Trak and Wiktor from the Lodz region of Poland, and a third Irish Hunter horse called Carnesella Lady, from rural county Galway.

Dinos had a number of infringements for mislabelling products between 2007 and 2012, but Mr Polnay said these were not criminal and should not be taken into account.

Sideras, who appeared wearing a dark suit, white shirt and grey tie, had claimed that he was not part of the conspiracy and had only stored the product for FlexiFoods. As part of his sentence, he was barred from being a director of a company for 10 years.

Michael Levy, defending Sideras, had denied his client played a leading role, although the judge rejected that suggestion.

"To try to talk it up is wrong and unfair," he said.

He also argued there were no real victims of the fraud.

Mr Levy added: "Did the man who bought the packet of burgers and ate them without incident ... and then discovers three, six or nine months later that the burgers he purchased contained a very small amount of horse, is he really a victim?

"I'm prepared to bet the first thing he did not say was 'oh damn, I paid 50p too much'."

Mr Levy also said Mr Sideras stood to gain between £6,000 to £8,000 and he had "squandered" the work that went into the family business, with 20 people facing losing their jobs.

"One might say it's a Greek tragedy of epic proportions," he added.

Gordon Stables, defending Nielsen, of Gentofte in Denmark, and Beech, from Sutton-on-Hull, said the fraud had been over a short period of time and argued that manufacturers and retailers had not suffered any loss because they had been paid for the products.

He said: "There is in fact no loss to the retailer financially in terms of the transaction - they sell is as beef and at each point, everybody sells it as if it is beef and make the profit as though it's beef.

"They are intending to gain the £20,000-and-a-half extra as a result of insertion of horse into the beef.

"The Crown say there's a loss which is billions of pounds to the industry.

"These defendants ought not to be blamed for the entire effect of the horsemeat scandal.

"They are but a drop in the ocean."

Nielsen, who arrived at court carrying his lunch in a Copenhagen Airport carrier bag, had no previous convictions and was "remorseful".

When asked by the judge why Beech had not refused to be part of the scheme as an employee, Mr Stables said: "He should have done and he accepts that and bitterly regrets that he did not."

Nielsen was also barred from being a company director for 10 years, while Beech was given a directorship ban of five years and ordered to carry out 120 hours of unpaid work.

Judge Davies said: "The fraud involved the forgery of papers - the source of the meat was hidden and the motive that you three had was nothing short of greed."

Nina Montalbano, from the CPS Specialist Fraud Division, said: "All three defendants knew full well this meat would enter the food chain through a number of leading supermarkets but continued their fraud with blatant disregard for the public's right to know what is in their food."