One of the country’s biggest producers of supermarket eggs faces a £1 million legal claim over allegations it helped spread a salmonella outbreak which poisoned more than 100 people.

Kent-based Fridays is accused by one of its former suppliers in a High Court claim of spreading the outbreak across the country by contaminated egg trays. 

The company denies the claims and says food safety has always been its “highest priority”.

Egg farmer Douglas Wanstall, 50, who operated 14 farms with more than 250,000 laying hens, alleges there was a series of failures by both Fridays and regulators over the outbreak, which infected two of his farms and was kept from the public for more than two years.

He told the Sunday Telegraph: “The response of the industry and government officials to this outbreak was absolutely woeful.”

Between July 2017 and December 2020, 120 people were poisoned by a strain of salmonella enteritidis linked to egg-laying farms across the country. Salmonella poisoning generally causes a mild illness, but can be serious and even fatal in vulnerable groups.

It is claimed in the High Court action that the Fridays egg-packing plant in Cranbrook, Kent, which packs ten million eggs a week, was the common link in many or all of the outbreaks.

Fridays, which has revenues of about £50 million a year, says it has supplied eggs to all the major multiple retailers. Industry sources say these have included Tesco, Asda and Morrisons.

Fridays egg farm in Kent

In July 2017, one of Mr Wanstall’s farms, Harefield Farm at Eastcote in Northamptonshire, was suspended from supplying UK eggs after the discovery of salmonella. 

The eggs were sent overseas for pasteurisation to eliminate any pathogens and the farm was suspended from the UK egg supply chain for seven months.

In 2018, it is claimed two other farms supplying Fridays were contaminated with the same strain of salmonella.

Another of Mr Wanstall’s farms, Deer Farm at Farrington in north Dorset, was found to be infected with the strain in March 2019. About 40,000 birds were slaughtered.

The government regulator the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) then tested for salmonella at Fridays, nearly two years after the first outbreak. 

According to the court documents, APHA allegedly found “deep-seated” and “widespread” salmonella. The agency has refused to release details of the inspection, citing commercial confidentiality.

‘This destroyed our poultry business’

Mr Wanstall, who has a farm near Ashford, Kent, said the outbreak forced him out of large-scale egg production. 

His farming firm J Wanstall & Sons is seeking damages from Fridays of between £500,000 and £1 million. He said: “This destroyed our poultry business. We have now just got one flock of 12,000.”

He alleges regulators and the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC), which oversees the British Lion Code of Practice for UK-produced eggs, did not take seriously enough the risk of salmonella being spread by contaminated trays.

The APHA and academic studies have confirmed there is a risk salmonella can be spread between farms by packing centres.

However, the BEIC said in a statement there was no evidence of the salmonella strain originating from the packing plant. 

The statement said: "BEIC at all times acted appropriately to safeguard public health, including by preventing the onward supply of eggs into the UK food chain.

"As BEIC is not a party to the litigation being brought by Mr Wanstall and given that the case is presently before the courts, it would not be appropriate to comment further."

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) said last week it was first informed on November 21, 2017, about the salmonella outbreak and was told “a significant number of supermarkets were affected”.

It said no alert was issued because the eggs were no longer on the market.

The FSA issued “precautionary” egg safety advice on September 21 2019 – the day after the outbreak was discovered by journalists and reported in the media – because it says it was informed of an outbreak involving eggs in the supply chain.

Wanstall believes the public should have been warned at an earlier stage and operations at Fridays suspended for a significant time for a wide-ranging investigation.

In 1988, health minister Edwina Currie was forced to quit after warning most of Britain’s egg production was infected with salmonella. 

A package of safety measures was implemented by the industry to combat salmonella and in October 2017 the FSA issued advice that raw or runny eggs produced with the British Lion mark were safe to eat for everyone.

A Fridays spokesman said: “This is a complex matter and it would be inappropriate to comment in detail given that there are legal proceedings under way. We do however refute these claims. Safe food has always been and remains our highest priority.  

“Accordingly, we have adopted and complied throughout with all applicable standards including the national control plan for salmonella, [the] Lion scheme and other voluntary codes of best practice to ensure the protection of our supply chain.”

An Animal and Plant Health Agency spokesman said: “All egg producers are subject to rigorous and regular inspections to ensure standards are being met and to minimise the risk to public health.

“Where regulatory standards have not been met, we will take action in order to ensure all producers are compliant with the relevant regulations.”

Fridays did not comment on which supermarkets they supply. It is understood it supplied Tesco for seven months in 2020, but there were no issues with salmonella and it is not a current supplier.