Kenny Swann must have feared the worst when Government inspectors turned up at his Dungannon factory in May last year. Six months previously, the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) had arranged a meeting with Dunbia to present serious allegations. It told the meat supplier former workers at the Dungannon plant had witnessed Brazilian beef being labelled as British, mutton being sold as lamb, and out-of-date meat being re-labelled and sent to customers. They would be willing to testify in court, the union warned.

Kickstarting a multi-agency investigation that would take over a year to complete, clear evidence was to emerge that the law had been broken. Yet Swann and Dunbia received nothing more than a caution. So what happened? And why was there no prosecution?

One reason for the failure to prosecute was the complexity of the investigation procedure. The FSA passed the case to two bodies: Northern Ireland's Department for Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) had the jurisdiction to investigate the beef case, while the local environmental health department had powers of prosecution covering the other allegations.

On 30 May 2007, the joint inspection team arrived at the factory, one of 10 owned by brothers Jack and Jim Dobson. During the discussion that ensued, Swann and HR director John Proctor admitted the company had sold mutton as lamb in a contract with a Swedish company starting in 2005.

"The explanation given for this was that, at the price they had negotiated for the contract, they could not afford to supply lamb," wrote Karl Oakman from DARD's central investigation service, in his report.

Dunbia later backtracked, however, claiming it had only sold mutton as lamb for a few days in June 2006 because it had run out of lamb. "This obviously totally contradicts what we were told at the meeting," said David Wright in a letter to DARD colleagues.

After meeting with the former workers in September 2007 to take their statements, it was claimed that not only was Dunbia selling mutton as lamb, it also had a policy in place to hide it from customers.

"I was concerned at ewes going out of the factory as lamb meat," said one. "This happened on a regular basis and included ewe legs being sent out as lamb legs. When representatives from companies [visited Dunbia Dungannon], any ewes on the premises were taken away in a trailer and then returned at the end of the visit."

After these allegations were made, Dunbia was told to make available to the investigators records for January to March 2006. As a result, a third instance of mislabelling emerged, with Swann formally admitting Dunbia had supplied nearly 3000kg of mutton as "lamb diced" in that period.

Other admissions
Nor are these the only meat misdemeanours made by Dunbia. As previously reported (The Grocer, 26 July 08), at the 30 May meeting Swann and Proctor admitted that on a one-off occasion, Dunbia had mislabelled Brazilian beef as British, though they "strenuously denied" this was deliberate. "On 24 August 2006 [they admitted] one pallet of Brazilian beef was mistakenly put through the boning hall and labelled as a product of NI," said Oakman in his report.

They also denied forward-dating products, claiming the best-before date system was misinterpreted .

The investigators subsequently found no evidence Dunbia was manipulating the dates on products. Nor were the investigators able to corroborate allegations that workers had hosed down frozen beef with hot water to defrost it.

Nevertheless, with Dunbia admitting to serious breaches under food safety law and DARD raising concerns about the repeated changes in Dunbia's story, customers could have expected to see Dunbia prosecuted.

So why was it let off with just a caution? Another reason is the law. After receiving a warning letter, and an increase in inspections, Dunbia avoided further action on beef mislabelling as the offence occurred more than six months before the evidence emerged.

DARD also appears to have been nervous that the TGWU had ulterior motives for bringing its allegations to Dunbia.

At the 30 May meeting, Proctor claimed the union allegations were part of an "ongoing campaign to gain a foothold in Dunbia" and said TGWU was trying to "blackmail" Dunbia, Wright recalled .

Whether or not the union was heavy-handed, it is clear threats to take the evidence to the press were taken seriously by DARD.

In an email Wright sent to the FSA on 3 July he professed to being worried about the union going to the press.

"They indicated that some of their members would be willing to testify to all this in court, and that if they were not satisfied with our ongoing investigations they would go to the press," wrote Wright.

In a further email to the council a month later, Wright added: "I am concerned that the TGWU might go to the press and that we must be seen to be doing something."

It has also emerged through documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act that there were disagreements within DARD about how hard to pursue the beef allegations. When DARD's Sean Deighan recommended a warning letter be sent to Dunbia over the beef mislabelling, his colleague George O'Doherty was concerned this was too light a response. "I am keen this is handed to the police if at all possible," he wrote.

On the mutton allegations, Wright also had "the distinct impression Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council would be unwilling to prosecute one of the largest employers in their own area", according to an email he wrote to O'Doherty and another colleague, Wilf Weatherup, on 13 August 2007.

The council has defended its decision not to prosecute over the mutton offence. The decision had nothing to do with Dunbia being a local employer, said Fiona McClements, deputy director of environmental health at the council.

"That was David Wright's opinion," she said. "There are standard issues in a decision-making process. In the public interest would be one criteria and the balance has to be in using rate-payers' money on a court case for an offence that hasn't happened recently and had discontinued - so is it in the public interest, spending public funds?"

In a statement to The Grocer, Dunbia insisted the mutton offence was a "technical breach of food regulations that occurred between January and March 2006", due to confusion over what constituted a lamb (see p4). The statement also said "disgruntled ex-employees" had made other allegations that DARD's investigations had shown to be groundless.

In the meantime, while Dunbia has not been prosecuted, the council is clear nothing similar will be allowed to happen again. "The record is always on file, it doesn't disappear," said McClements.

"If a similar offence happens again then legal proceedings will be instigated."