Previously on marketinglaw, we reported on trading standards enforcement action against Sainsbury’s over alleged excessive packaging. At that time the proceedings were still pending. Now there is closure, but was it win, lose or draw for the retailer? Joseph Kitchingham serves up the last course.
Topic: Labelling and Packaging
When: October 2010
Law stated as at: 12 October 2010
Lincolnshire County Council’s trading standards team called off court proceedings against Sainsbury's due to take place on 13 October 2010.
The UK retailer’s Taste the Difference joint of beef was under investigation following a number of complaints that it breached the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003 (the “Regulations”). The Regulations prohibit the use of excess packaging.
The dropped charge stated that the store in question, on or before February 17, placed packaging on the market that was "not limited to the minimum adequate amount to maintain the necessary level of safety, hygiene and acceptance".
The £11.99/kg “luxury joint” investigated was vacuum-packed in plastic, placed inside an Apet plastic tray, covered with a lid then surrounded by a cardboard sleeve.
Head of Lincolnshire Trading Standards, Peter Heafield, said of the decision to drop the action:
“This authority first drew its concerns about this issue to Sainsbury’s attention in early 2009 and the matters before the court related to the packaging being used on this product in April 2009 and February 2010. With the changes which have now been made and the intention of Sainsbury’s to make further reductions if possible this authority has decided that it is no longer in the public interest to prosecute.”
The supermarket has apparently avoided prosecution after making significant voluntary reductions. The Council stated that it had received "evidence of a considerable reduction in packaging and the replacement of all previous stock" and therefore made the decision that the prosecution was no longer in the interest of the general public.
A spokesman for the supermarket said:
“We are pleased that the council has withdrawn this case, which we don’t believe was ever in the public interest. Our packaging is under constant review and the council was made aware of our plans for this product back in June, so we never understood why the prosecution was allowed to go as far as it did.”
But 'green' campaigners – who had been hoping that the prosecution would be brought to trial and help expose other examples of excessive packaging across the industry – will be disappointed at the outcome.
Councillor Peter Robinson, deputy leader of Lincolnshire County Council, said,
“The packaging has now been reduced and a way forward to try to achieve even further reductions has been agreed. I am pleased with this very positive outcome. The need for court action has been avoided and the reduction in packaging which is being achieved on this and other products will result in less environmental damage, while at the same time lowering the cost to the council taxpayer of processing household waste.”
Sainsbury's further commented that it had reduced overall packaging across all products by eight million kilos over the past year alone and aimed to reduce packaging by a further third by 2015.
Why this matters:
This is by all accounts the first attempt at prosecution of a retailer over breach of the Regulations since 2006, and it has again failed to reach court.
One view is that the deal will avoid a court case that could have set a powerful precedent to force other supermarkets to reduce their packaging and added sizeable judicial support to campaigners seeking to put the spotlight on suspected breaches of the Regulations.
Another view is that Sainsbury’s acted in the best interest of the industry and the public purse by acting voluntarily to reduce the “offending” packaging and reaching an agreement to continue to reduce packaging levels over the next five years.