Noxious odour lands food giant with £140,000 fine

A subsidiary of one of the UK’s biggest food firms has been fined £140,000 for two odour incidents, one of which was so powerful that local residents claimed it affected their health.

The Environment Agency secured one of its largest fines on 8 January when HL Foods was ordered to pay £140,000 for twice breaching the odour conditions in its environmental permit.

The company pleaded guilty at Lincoln Crown Court to two counts of failing to use best available techniques to prevent or reduce odorous emissions, contrary to section 32(1)b of the Pollution Prevention and Control (England and Wales) Regulations 2000. The fine comprised £20,000 for the first incident and £120,000 for the second. Costs were set at £4,421.

HL Foods is a subsidiary of Premier Foods, owner of major brands such as Hovis, Mr Kipling, Sharwood’s, Bisto and Quorn.

The charges related to failures at its Long Sutton cannery in south Lincolnshire in October 2007 and January 2008 that led to overpowering smells. The site has a history of odour problems, each of which lasted several days.

The Agency became aware of the first incident in October 2007 after residents complained of a smell like rotten cabbage or eggs coming from the site.

Officers traced the odour to the firm’s overloaded waste water treatment plant. Effluent had been diverted to it without passing through the site’s anaerobic digester, which had failed.

HL Foods’ consultant told the officers that difficulties in recommissioning the digester meant the smells would continue. However, the company’s general manager Richard Sloan agreed to reduce production after the Agency said it intended to issue an enforcement notice.

Production was eventually cut but only after the company had first tried other ways to reduce the treatment plant’s load.

Further complaints relating to the water treatment plant were made in January 2008. An Agency officer revisited the site to find an odour coming from a fan used to send biogas from the plant to a boiler. The court heard that it was so intense it was not possible to stand next to the fan for more than a few seconds. One resident lost his appetite and had trouble sleeping. He said the smell was like rotting vegetation or "a dead rat". Another reported that a family member had vomited.

Failure of a flare to burn off the plant’s excess biogas had caused the smell. The defendant and the prosecution blamed contractors and as a result the company intends to manage its waste water in-house.

The Agency prosecutor accepted the digester’s failure in October 2007 was unintentional. Nevertheless, bypassing it and the resulting smells could be considered "intentional or reckless". HL Foods was loath to cut back production for commercial reasons, he added.

After the hearing, Agency officer Dominic Freestone said: "It is disappointing that we have had to resort to prosecution to get this company to ‘up their game’ and take responsibility for the impacts of their operation on the community. Operators need to understand that where persuasion and influence fail, we will take formal action."

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