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25 November 2011, 14:04
Five men who masterminded a major counterfeit vodka manufacturing and bottling plant in Leicestershire, have today been sentenced to a total of 17 years and ten months.
A sixth man will be sentenced on 5 December 2011.
The plot was uncovered in an industrial unit by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) when they carried out raids in September 2009. They seized nine thousand bottles of fake vodka, branded as Glen’s, manufacturing equipment, bottles and counterfeit packaging – labels and cardboard boxes, at the remote industrial unit at Moscow Farm near Great Dalby, Leicestershire.
The court heard there was a complete lack of any fire safety measures in the unit posing a serious and life threatening hazard. The alcohol vapour alone could have triggered a major explosion if the lights had been switched on or a naked flame or cigarette had been lit.
Simon De Kayne, Assistant Director of Criminal Investigation for HMRC, said:
“This was a substantial production, bottling and distribution plant with the infrastructure to distribute large quantities of counterfeit Glen’s vodka throughout the country. But it was set up without any thought for the safety of those working there or in the area nearby.
“The gang were fully aware the counterfeit vodka they manufactured contained highly dangerous chemicals making it unfit for human consumption, but were interested only in making a profit at the expense of British taxpayers. The revenue loss to the Exchequer on this haul alone was £1.5 million.”
Upon sentencing His Honour Judge J Sampson said: "This was fraud on an industrial scale. You set out to make as many bottles as humanly possible. If not discovered it would have gone on and the duty loss would have been unquantifiable.”
He added that there were five areas of concern: “The high loss to the taxpayer; the duping of the public; the danger to the public, particularly as bleach was added; the undermining of the genuine brand and danger to the workforce in the factory.”
He also asked for “the team and the investigators to be commended for all the hard work and hours of toil that went into this case.”
The bottles of vodka seized featured professionally printed labels, duty stamps and bottle tops – all of which were counterfeit. Analysis of a sample bottle showed raised levels of methanol. In high quantities methanol can pose health risks.
In addition over 25,000 litres of pure denatured alcohol (methylated spirits) was seized, enough to make around 100,000 bottles of vodka. Denatured alcohol is used as a solvent and contains hundreds of additives. It is coloured purple to distinguish it from drinkable alcohol and is not fit for human consumption. Bleach was used by the gang to remove the colouring to make it clear before diluting to the required strength.
Evidence showed that at least a further 165,000 bottles of fake vodka were manufactured at Moscow Farm during 2008 and 2009. They had been distributed to independent stores across the UK. HMRC officers had seized the same illicit vodka from shops in Salford, London and South Wales. Forensic analysis showed it was a positive match for the vodka seized at Moscow Farm.
A Proceeds of Crime Act investigation is now underway. Assets of around £1.7million have so far been restrained including houses, cars and motorcycles and a number of bank accounts.
The bottling industry has very stringent rules regarding the storage of alcohol and how it is handled in a bottling environment. None of these were observed. There were no roof based sprinkler systems, fire hoses, fire extinguishers, fire safety doors, exit signs, fire blankets, fire shut off valves on any of the pipe work nor air scrubbing systems to remove alcohol vapour that would start to accumulate within the fabric of the building.
Even a small infestation of rats could easily have gnawed through any one of the cables, in this farm environment. With the stored alcohol and so much combustible material lying around in the barn a fire could have started at any time with considerable loss of life. It would have developed into a lethal blaze very quickly. With only one exit point, anyone inside the building would be very unlikely to survive the blaze, as the operatives would have been working down at the far end of the building with their exit blocked by ISO containers full of alcohol. It is likely that the shutter door would have been closed for most of the time to avoid any prying eyes, which again would have increased the hazard potential to anyone inside.
No thought had been given to any safety procedures even in their most basic form.
The health hazards of bleach are clearly marked on any bottle purchased either domestically or in bulk. The labeling is an international standard, the icons used such as the ones on the industrial containers clearly show it is a highly dangerous product, effectively poison if ingested or highly dangerous if it comes in contact with human skin.
It is likely that the people responsible for the bottling of the Glens Vodka would have known that they were putting this highly dangerous product into a bottle for human consumption.
The Health and Safety Executive guidelines clearly state that bleach should not be mixed with anything other than water as it may liberate the chlorine, so creating a highly flammable and toxic mixture.