Coles has been hit with a $31,500 fine for displaying deli meats past their use-by date.
The Adelaide Magistrates Court found the supermarket giant breached the food code at its McLaren Vale store in South Australia in April last year, when local council inspectors found out-of-date items including salami and shaved ham.
Coles faced more legal drama yesterday, when lawyers for the company pleaded guilty to seven counts of breaching food safety regulations and prosecutors dropped another 15 counts.
Magistrate David Whittle also ordered Coles to pay $10,000 in legal costs for Onkaparinga Council.
Coles yesterday released a statement saying the company took food safety seriously and the South Australian stores had an outstanding record in that area.
“We set high standards and when we do not meet them, we take accountability and fix the problem,” said the retailer.
The laws relating to date markings are consistent across all Australian states and territories and are based on two different kinds of date marks, use-by dates and best before dates.
Spokesperson for Food Standards Australia, Lorraine Belanger, told SmartCompany best before dates were used on products with no health safety risks, such as muesli bars, and related to the quality of the product. These items can be sold after their marked date.
However, products with use-by dates, such as deli meats or fish, are at high risk of growing bacteria under the right conditions and must be removed from the shelf before their marked date.
“It is very important to keep on top of use-by dates, especially for vulnerable sector of the community, such as pregnant, sick or people with an immune deficiency,” says Belanger.
She says the easiest way for businesses to avoid breaching the law was to keep across the code and any changes made to it on Food Standards Australia’s website and publications.
Representative Advocate of the National Association of Retail Grocers Australia, Selwyn Johnston, told SmartCompany the major supermarkets have sold expired food for decades and the fine is just “a slap on the wrist”.
Johnston says smaller food retailers bust their necks to follow the codes, because if they were caught, the ramifications could put them out of business.
“Word of mouth is death by a thousand lashes to small businesses,” he says.
“The reason why smaller grocers follow the code by the letter is because they want to provide a real alternative to the major supermarkets.”
“The majors have got away with it and will continue to get away with it. The fine is pittance to a major supermarket chain,” says Johnston, who says $30,000 is close to the yearly turnover of some independent supermarkets.
Johnston said small food retailers should maintain vigilance in checking their stock and remove its products two to three days before the expiry date.
“A precedent has been set now and a $30,000 fine would put a small grocer out of business,” he says.