Free-range egg faker sentenced to home detention
An egg farmer who passed off 2.47 million caged eggs as free range to customers has been spared a jail sentence in the Whangarei District Court today.
John Garnett, director of WB Garnett Ltd, faced 20 charges of criminal deception after he packaged 206,000 dozen caged eggs and sold them as non caged to 38 clients, including supermarkets, who onsold them to unsuspecting customers.
Despite the Commerce Commission asking for imprisonment to reflect the gravity and length of the offending and its impact on the free range egg industry, Judge Duncan Harvey took account of Garnett's remorse and sentenced him to 12 months home detention and 200 hours community work.
The court heard Garnett's main motive was financial with his company estimated to have gained a $376,000 pecuniary advantage over a 20 month period.
Garnett had taken over his father's family business in 1998 but was in financial strife when the offending began.
The Commerce Commission submitted that the offending was a "serious and sustained deception" which had misled trusting customers who wouldn't know the difference in product and undermined the egg industry's reputation.
The commission's counsel Claire Patterson said the offending may well have gone on a lot longer if it weren't for a disgruntled former employee who made a complaint.
As a result, the Egg Producers Federation (EPF), representing free-range, barn, colony and conventional cage farmers, alerted authorities to the illegal activity.
EPF executive director Michael Brooks said the egg industry would not hesitate to act again in the interests of consumers in the future.
"This was a serious breach of consumer trust and industry integrity,'' Brooks said after the sentencing.
Brooks said the federation had taken steps to ensure more stringent traceability processes, enforced by the Ministry of Primary Industries, were in place to prevent dishonest behaviour in the future.
Although Garnett admitted his guilt early on in the commission's investigation he had failed to take responsibility for his actions, Patterson said.
"He tried to justify his offending by claiming other members of the industry were doing the same thing," Patterson said.
"When you take into account eggs are a commodity that many people care a lot about and are prepared to pay a higher price for for a variety of reasons ... the impact of this type of offending is in the public confidence in the egg industry."
The commission submitted three to three and a half years imprisonment was appropriate to send a clear message that the deception was unacceptable but it wouldn't oppose home detention, Patterson said.
Garnett's lawyer Julie Young said her client had a long-standing relationship with the Whangarei community and was extremely remorseful for his actions.
"Prior to this he was someone who was passionate about his business and providing eggs to the community. It's almost incomprehensible why he entered into this dishonesty."
His feelings of responsibility to his 20 staff was an aggravating feature of his dishonesty, she said.
"(The money) didn't go into his back pocket, it went back to the company."
Garnett wasn't in a position to pay reparation but Young recommended home detention or community work.
Judge Duncan Harvey agreed that the egg industry was the biggest victim of Garnett's offending and the sentence would be viewed by many as a clear message.
"There is a need for me to hold you accountable and for me to it make it clear this conduct is completely unacceptable," Harvey said.
"There is a need for me to impose a sentence that is deterrent. If what you claim to be is true, that this kind of behaviour in the egg industry is common, that is very disturbing. There is a need to send a very clear message."
However, he took into account mitigating factors such as Garnett's compliance with the commission's investigation, his concern for his employees and the amount of stress he was facing at the time, including a bout of depression.
He acknowledged a pre-sentencing report which said Garnett had a low risk of reoffending and should serve a home detention and community work sentence.
The offending wasn't particularly sophisticated but it was large scale and had a variety of victims, Harvey said.
He imposed a sentence of 12 months home detention and 200 hours community service during which time he was to refrain from taking and possessing drugs and alcohol and should complete counselling as directed.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Garnett was fined.