UK's first guilty conviction in horsemeat food fraud

A London businessman has been found guilty of a food fraud scam where he mixed horsemeat with beef and sold it with false labels claiming it was 100 per cent made from cows.

Andronicos Sideras (55), was convicted of defrauding customers after a three-week trial at Inner London Crown Court. It took the jury more than 10 hours to reach a verdict.

This is the first UK conviction for selling mislabelled horsemeat after investigations following the 2013 horsemeat scandal although a Dutch trader was convicted and jailed in 2015.

Sideras, the owner of north London meat company and sausage manufacturer Dinos & Sons, had been described during court proceedings as having a "key role" in the plot to produce "horsebeef" where he mixed beef with cheaper horsemeat. This was sold with false labels to a number of manufacturing companies between January and November 2012, with some of the adulterated meat entering the food chain.

Sideras, from Southgate, north London, had denied conspiracy to defraud, and during the trial he said he stored the horsemeat as a favour for another company FlexiFoods but he maintained he had no idea how the horsemeat got mixed into the beef.

However, two men, Ulrik Nielsen (58), of Gentofte, Denmark, owner of Danish firm FlexiFoods, and his "right-hand man" Alex Beech (44), of Highfield Close, Hull, both admitted their part in the conspiracy to defraud.

The court heard that Dinos & Sons would store horsemeat supplied by FlexiFoods bought from traders across Europe, while evidence of fraud was found at Dinos & Sons, including documents for forging product labels. The court was told Sideras' fingerprints were found on the "fake" labels.

According to police, the scam involved 30 tonnes of horsemeat, of which 20 tonnes was destined for the food chain. The conspiracy raked in £177,000, though it is believed the true cost ran into the millions.

The court had been told, the racket was "motivated by greed". In 2012, beef sold for about €3 (£2.60) a kilogram at wholesale prices, while horsemeat sold at about €2 a kilogram. The scam allowed the men to increase their profits by 30-40 per cent.

"These men, motivated by greed, knowingly sold horsemeat to manufacturers so they could increase their profits," said Nina Montalbano, from the Crown Prosecution Service. "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."

The plot came to light when delivery orders were mixed up and the fraudulent meat was sent by accident to the firm Rangeland, based in Newry, Northern Ireland, which is Ireland's top wholesale meat supplier. The adulterated meat was supposed to be destined for meat factory Silvercrest.

The consignment mix up resulted in a surprise spot-check by environmental health officers who found three horse ID chips in the meat products. Analysis found that approximately one third of the 12 pallets at the cold-store contained "significant amounts" of horsemeat.

The UK Food Standards Agency, which sparked the horsemeat investigations, has welcomed the conviction.

Heather Hancock, chairman of the FSA, said: "This guilty verdict is a welcome outcome. It sends a strong message that we will not tolerate fraudulent activity and I hope today's conviction is a major deterrent to those who think they can profit from duping consumers."

The FSA first began looking into the circumstances behind the adulteration of meat products with horsemeat in 2013 when the scandal hit headlines. It passed the investigating responsibility to City of London police when it became clear the potential fraudulent criminal activity was beyond what the FSA was in a position to pursue. Since the scandal, however, and in the face of growing public awareness of food fraud, the FSA, along with the meat industry, has worked to reduce food fraud criminality.

"The establishment of the FSA's National Food Crime Unit has given the general public, the food industry and law enforcement partners at home and abroad for the first time, a dedicated single point of contact to share suspicions about dishonesty within food supply chains," said Hancock. "Although fraud evolves and is inherently unpredictable, the combination of these measures should mean that another incident of this nature is less likely."

Sideras, Nielson and Beech will be sentenced in due course.

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