London press and radio reports instantly seized on the information released from Westminster City Council graphically describing hygiene failures, including the discovery of a bloated ‘supermouse’ feasting in a food crate.
Within a few hours, the story appeared on national press websites, including those attached to The Sun and the Daily Mail.
Environmental health officers were called in to inspect the store after complaints from customers in March last year of mouse sightings in the aisles.
After two visits, the inspectors immediately issued an emergency hygiene prohibition notice closing the premises upon discovering food debris atop shelves, a strong smell of decomposing rodents and mouse droppings.
Droppings were discovered on packaging, by the pick n’ mix counter, on shelves stocking crisps and elsewhere in the store.
Live rodents in the shop’s storage area, gnawed raw chicken on crates in a basement walk-in fridge and out of date, rotting food in a dairy and produce cold room were also reported.
Issuing his decision yesterday (July 18), district judge John Sanders accepted Tesco's argument that the out of date food was waste and not intended for sale.
He said each of a potential six violations carried a maximum fine of £5,000, but referred the case to Southwark Crown Court because he felt his powers were insufficient to impose appropriate penalties.
Tesco was found guilty of failing to:
- Keep the premises clean allowing areas of the store to get very dirty;
- Have adequate procedures in place to control pests;
- Keep raw materials and ingredients in appropriate conditions designed to prevent harmful deterioration and protect them from contamination;
- Keep wrapping materials stored in a proper manner, such that they were exposed to a risk of contamination;
- Have a proper layout, design and construction of the food premises to permit good food hygiene practises, including protection against contamination;
- Implement and maintain proper HACCP (hazard analysis critical control points) procedures.
After the hearing, Safia Khokhar, Westminster City Council environmental health officer, said the case related to “one of the most concerning breaches of food safety laws we have seen in a long time".
"The conditions at the store were disgusting and a serious risk to health ... Even Tesco recognised that there had been serious failures in its own procedures that allowed the situation to get to the stage it did.”
On the basis of the evidence, Tesco pleaded guilty to the six offences and subsequently issued an official apology.
In a statement, the supermarket giant said: “We insist on the highest standards of hygiene in our stores and we are very sorry that we fell short of those standards in Covent Garden last year.
“We took urgent action to deal with this isolated incident and voluntarily kept the store closed whilst we carried out a complete refit. We have been working hard to ensure our high standards are maintained so that this will not happen again.”
The incident is the latest in a string of high profile PR gaffes for the retailer. Earlier this month, Tesco issued another apology for a tweet from Steve Strachota, Tesco distribution director, praising the axing of five depots as an example of "awesome teamwork".
And Tesco came under heavy fire for its involvement in the horsemeat scandal, when samples from frozen beef burgers sold in its stores tested positive for horsemeat in tests by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.
- Food Manufacture is holding a food safety conference at the National Motorcycle Museum, close to Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre, on October 17. Speakers include FSA director of operations Andrew Rhodes, David Brackston, technical director of the British Retail Consortium, and Sue Davies, chief policy advisor at consumer group Which? For more information, click here.