A woman who imported food from Africa that contained dangerous levels of toxins and distributed it to markets and suppliers across London has been given a jail sentence following a prosecution brought by Lambeth Council, with support from Croydon Council and the Food Standards Agency.
Mary Durowah, trading as Marduro Limited, was initially sentenced to eight months in custody for running an illegal food importation racket that involved bringing peanut butter and groundnut paste into the UK that contained high levels of aflatoxins, a toxic, naturally occurring species of mould, which can cause cancer. On appeal, heard on Friday 26 November, the sentence was reduced to three concurrent prison sentences of two months each, and a fine of £1,000. She was also ordered to pay costs of £9,000. Her son, Asamoah Obeng, was fined £100 for his role in the operation after pleading guilty to one offence at Camberwell Magistrates’ Court.
The illegal products were imported into ports including Tilbury, often hidden among legal products to avoid being spotted by border inspection officers. They were then distributed across London to shops and markets in Lambeth, Croydon, Newham, Wandsworth, Southwark and Hackney. Some of the products were found by environmental health officers for sale in Brixton Market.
Environmental Health Officers this week warned people of the dangers of buying foreign imported foods that do not meet UK standards.
Cllr Lorna Campbell, Cabinet Member for Environment on Lambeth Council, said: “This was a sophisticated operation and we are pleased that the seriousness of the offences have been recognised by the court.
“The products were brought in to the UK primarily to serve the West African Communities in London, but it’s important that people realise they are not legal in this country because they may contain contaminants that can have damaging long term health effects. If you have any concerns about any product you have bought then you should seek advice from the Environmental Health Department of your local council.
“Environmental Health Officers play a vital role in protecting the public from harm by making sure that food on sale in the UK is fit for consumption. This was a complicated case made more difficult by the refusal of the defendant to cooperate with the investigation, but I hope the severity of the sentence sends a warning to other people who may be tempted to distribute illegal food that the courts treat such activity extremely seriously and the penalties can be severe.”
Councillor Steve O’Connell, Croydon Council cabinet member for community safety said: “If traders ignore advice and warnings from our food safety team then they can expect to have their products seized. In extreme cases like this we will also seek prosecutions – which as you can see may lead to fines or even prison.”
Lambeth Council led the investigation with support from colleagues in Croydon. Lambeth’s initial involvement with Marduro Limited was due to the fact that an address in Lambeth (Hamilton Road, West Norwood, SE27) was used on importation documents, but officers subsequently discovered that the legal owners of the property had no knowledge of or legal connection with that company. The Food Standards Agency funded the sampling, analysis and disposal costs from their Food Fraud Fighting Fund.
Mrs Durowah initially pleaded guilty to 16 charges laid against her and 13 charges laid against her company, Marduro Limited, for a range of offences under food safety legislation. She was sentenced at Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court on 29 October 2010 and her appeal was heard on 26 November 2010 at Inner London Crown Court. The charges related to offences under The General Food Regulations 2004, The Contaminants in Food Regulations 2007 and The Food Hygiene (England) Regulations 2006 and the Official Feed and Food Controls (England) Regulations 2007.
Asamoah Obeng pleaded guilty to one offence under regulation 15(1)(b) of the Food Hygiene (England) Regulations 2006. He was sentenced to a fine of £100 and ordered to make a contribution to costs of £100 and a Victim Surcharge of £15. The products in question were labelled as Active Peanut Butter and Active Ground Nut Paste.