One of the largest fines ever levied for food hygiene-related offences has been imposed on a company operating two Croydon town-centre stores.
Representatives of the 99p Stores in North End and Crown Hill appeared at Croydon Crown Court on Monday (30) when the company was fined a total of £154,000 after admitting seven breaches of food safety and hygiene laws.
Both shops, part of a nationwide chain recently acquired by Poundland, were found to have large mouse infestations when Croydon Council food and safety officers visited, following complaints from shoppers.
The court heard that officers went to the North End branch in August, last year, to find a basement storage area that smelt strongly of mouse urine, had mouse droppings across the floor and food packages that had been gnawed. It was ordered to be closed until measures had been taken to deal with the problems.
A ground-floor food storage area contained fruit fly-infested rotting fruit, and the shopfloor was found to be littered with debris, including food waste, beneath shelving units.
Shelving in the main warehouse contained rodent-gnawed packs of biscuits, and mouse droppings, and there was a hole in the fire exit door through which mice could gain access.
During a return visit five days later, yet more evidence of infestation was found, and a pest-control contractor’s report, seized by officers, showed that infestation had been a recurring problem and that recommendations had not been followed.
Officers who attended the Crown Hill branch in October 2014 noticed a pervasive odour of mouse urine and found that packs of crisps on the shopfloor shelves were sticky to the touch, having been contaminated by mouse urine.
All food-storage shelves were found to have mouse droppings among the packaging, some of which showed evidence of having been chewed. A similar picture presented itself in the basement storage area, where, like the North End store, the fire exit was found to be holed, allowing rodent and pest access.
Officers ordered the store’s immediate closure until measures had been taken to deal with the problems. On returning the following day, a contractor told them that 20 mice had been caught overnight, and that a “pest plan” was being put in place.
Returning on four subsequent occasions – the most recent last week (25 November) – officers continued to find small amounts of mouse droppings but allowed the store to reopen as significant progress had been made and measures taken to protect food from contamination.
The company was invited, on a number of occasions, to attend interviews but declined, and also failed to answer submitted questions.
Judge Peter Gower QC said: “This company fell, in respect of both stores, far short of the appropriate standard by allowing breaches to subsist over a long period of time. If it did not completely ignore, it certainly failed adequately to act on the concerns raised by its independent contractors.”
The fine of £154,000, reduced from £231,000 for the guilty pleas, was made up of £22,000 on each of the seven counts. Costs of £8,200 were also imposed, as was a victim surcharge of £120, totalling £162,320.
“It makes me angry that a company of this size can allow such dreadful failures of hygiene in its stores.
“This is a company that makes profits running into the millions, so there really is no excuse for such atrocious conditions to exist in its shops.
“The fine reflects the severity of the case, as was made clear in the judge’s comments, and I hope that it’s a lesson learned by the company. Let it also be a warning to others to keep on top of their hygiene responsibilities for the safety and well-being of their customers.”