Supermarket giant Sainsbury’s is facing a potential hefty fine over an over-packaged meat joint, but are the current regulations and punishments reflective of today’s market? Joseph Kitchingham of Redstone Plc investigates.
Topic: Labelling and Packaging
Who: Sainsbury’s and Lincolnshire Trading Standards
When: September 2010
Law stated as at: 17 September 2010
Lincolnshire County Council’s trading standards team is taking Sainsbury’s to court after residents accused the supermarket of putting too much packaging on a joint of beef. The UK retailer’s Taste the Difference product is understood to be under investigation over claims that it breached the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003 (the “Regulations”). The Regulations prohibit the use of excess packaging. The charge states the store, on or before February 17 2010, placed packaging on the market which did not meet essential requirements.
The £11.99/kg "luxury joint" in question was allegedly vacuum-packed in plastic then further packaged inside a 20cm by 15cm Apet plastic tray, then covered with a plastic lid, then wrapped around with a printed cardboard sleeve
Peter Heafield, head of trading standards at Lincolnshire, said:
“Excessive packaging on goods can cause unnecessary damage to the environment and increases costs associated with recycling and landfill. Lincolnshire County Council has a duty to enforce regulations which require businesses to review and reduce their packaging so that items are packaged only in a way that is necessary for issues such as protection of the product and consumer acceptance.”
A spokesperson for Sainsbury's said the packaging of the product in question has now been reduced by 53%, and is set to be reduced by "at least" another 10% within the next few months. The spokesperson stated:
"We were surprised by the comments made by Lincolnshire County Council, which do not reflect the very positive outcome of our meeting with Lincolnshire's packaging team. In fact, we have been informed that the council, in light of that meeting, is currently looking again at whether the case will proceed.”
The three key aspects to the Regulations are:
1. Packaging must be manufactured so that its volume and weight is the minimum necessary to maintain safety, hygiene and acceptance by the consumer;
2. It must be designed to permit its reuse or recovery, including recycling, and to minimise the impact on the environment; and
3. The presence of noxious or other hazardous substances and materials must be minimised with regard to their presence in emissions after incineration or landfill.
It is understood that the retailer’s alleged breach results from application of the requirements set out in the first two criteria.
A court hearing is due to take place on 13 October, an official at Lincoln magistrate’s court confirmed and the retailer is facing a potential fine of between £500 and £3,000.
Why this matters:
The prosecution could become a test case for other councils trying to reduce local recycling and landfill costs. Despite the EU packaging directive becoming UK law in 1999, councils have long campaigned for a tightening of the legislation to remove loopholes in order to make it effective. They also want the £5,000 maximum fine to be increased to up to ten times the current maximum.
Subjective area of law:
Katherine Southby, head of regulatory at law firm Gordons, said the law in this area has a subjective element to it that takes into account what would be acceptable to the end user.
"This means that there can be entirely legitimate reasons for using what initially appears to be more packaging than is necessary. Businesses need to try to minimise packaging where it is practical to do so, and robustly document the decision making process when deciding that packaging cannot be reduced any further so that this decision can be defended at a later date."
Trading Standards officers have previously called for the government to close loopholes in the legislation, particularly with regard to "consumer acceptance" which has been described as a get out for companies. Better-phrased regulations would also make it easier for local authority Trading Standards services to advise firms and to enforce the law.