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A free-range egg farmer has successfully tackled the UK's food safety regulations in the magistrates' courts, arguing that his packaging did not place the consumer at risk.
Last month the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food (MAFF) decided to put some force behind the packaging regulations for eggs. Accordingly, it attempted to prosecute Marlborough-based egg supplier Martin Pitt at Devises Magistrates' Court, Wiltshire, for incorrectly dating his eggs by stamping: "Laid between 21-23 Oct" on the box.
Pitt argued that the stamp was not an indication of freshness, but a statement of fact, giving the consumer more information.
At no time did MAFF suggest that consumers were at risk, or that the product was unsafe, nor that the facts stated on the packs were incorrect.
MAFF admitted in evidence that it had discretion to apply the regulations in accordance with their spirit.
Most eggs in the UK are sold with a "best before" date indicated by words, for example, "15 Dec" rather than "15/12". If producers state on the box the date on which eggs are laid, the egg must also be date stamped, and this date must be in figures.
MAFF prosecuted Pitt for not putting the date, "22/10", and alleged that "Laid between 21-23 Oct" meant they were laid on 22 October, therefore the date ought to be stamped on the egg. Both charges were dismissed.
There is a thin line between enforcing regulations for the purposes of protecting consumers and enforcing them for the sake of being seen to do so. There is a common feeling, not only among lawyers, but also among consumers, that other European countries do not enforce regulations with the same zeal as the UK.
The question raised by this prosecution was whether or not MAFF's interpretation and attempted enforcement was reasonable. The answer was "no", and it therefore follows that the authorities should credit the consumer with intelligence and reduce the role of the state.
MAFF, it is believed, wanted clarification of the regulations. Pitt wanted to sell more eggs. The result is that MAFF has to rethink its interpretation and our client can label his eggs in his chosen way.