Keith Owen, leader of Heart of England Eggs in Worcestershire, United Kingdom, has been sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay a total of £3.25M — a £3M confiscation order and £250,000 in prosecution costs — on three counts of false accounting. Defra — the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs — alleged that the company sold millions of eggs laid by caged birds as free-range or organic.

In the United Kingdom, eggs are not washed before marketing. This makes it possible to distinguish between products derived from caged flocks and floor-housed or free-range systems by microscopic examination of the dust adhering to the shell. 

The UK National Farmers’ Union supported the sentence.

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Charles Bourns, NFU poultry board chairman, said in a press release, “I welcome the outcome of this trial. The confiscation order and custodial sentence handed down by the courts sends out a strong message that this kind of activity will not be tolerated. The vast majority of people working within the egg industry are hardworking and honest. Thankfully cases like this are few and far between.”

Bourns said the British Lion quality assurance program, which establishes best practices for egg production, “has strengthened its code of practice to ensure its traceability is robust, with on-farm stamping, a new database to track eggs throughout the system and unannounced audits.” Egg producers using cages, cage-free aviaries or free-range housing are all eligible for the British Lion program, but must agree not to misrepresent their housing systems to consumers.

“Consumers can be reassured that with new procedures in place, the eggs they are buying are genuine,” Bourne said.