Ask Italian has apologised for misleading customers over wrongly labelling a popular lobster dish at the 110 sites across the mid-market chain.
The brand, owned by Azzurri Restaurants, was fined £40,000 by Swansea Magistrates after pleading guilty to selling a food with a misleading label between December 2016 and March 2019, contrary to the Food Safety Act 1990.
Swansea Council brought the case to court after a £14.95 dish described as Aragosta e Gamberoni (lobster and king prawns) was found to be made from a 70p lobster and fish mix.
The lack of lobster in the dish was spotted by a trading standards officer during a routine visit to a branch in the city centre. Swansea Magistrates Court heard consumers had been "misled" about the true nature of the dish and its cheap ingredients - but the company insisted it was a "labelling mistake", and there was no intention to deceive.
Lee Reynolds, prosecuting on behalf of the local authority, said the issue came to light after an inspector visited Ask on Swansea 's Wind Street in March 2019.
He explained the council officer selected a dish with the menu description of "lobster and king prawns in a creamy tomato sauce with a hint of chilli" - and asked to see the ingredients.
The barrister said the officer was shown the raw ingredients, but to her "it did not look like or resemble lobster meat" so she asked to see the original packaging. When the inspector was shown the pack it turned out to be something called Lobster Sensations, which described itself as: "A delicious blend of real lobster and lobster flavoured seafood made with surimi, a fully cooked fish protein".
The actual lobster content of the frozen sensation is 35%, with a similar amount of white fish, and other ingredients including potato starch and soy protein.
Reynolds said the projected sales of Aragosta e Gamberoni nationwide totalled around £3m.
He said: "This was being sold as lobster throughout the national chain of restaurants. We say consumers did not get what the consumer was entitled to expect when ordering the dish. They were not receiving, we say, proper lobster."
He conceded while the description had been "misleading", there was little or no risk to safety.
Reynolds added the cost of buying frozen lobster to make the dish would have been £12.60 per 100 grams, while the cost of the lobster mix was £1.40 per 100 grams. The overall cost of ingredients for the lobster and prawn dish was £2.84, of which the mixed seafood product made up 70p.
The court heard that once the council raised the issue with the company, the dish in question was removed from menus around the country.
Oliver Campbell, representing Azzurri Restaurants, said the firm apologised for, and regretted, the "error" it had made.
He said it had been a "mistake in the description given to the dish” and "strongly denied" there had been a financial motivation behind the offending.
District judge Neale Thomas believed the way the dish had been described on the menu by the firm was a "deliberate action", and that it "falsely represented" the nature of the food.
But he said he was not convinced there was "evidence of profiteering" by the company in its actions.
Giving Azzurri Restaurants a one-third discount for its guilty plea, he fined the firm £40,000.
The district judge said Swansea Council was to be commended for uncovering the issue.
A spokesperson for Ask Italian, which had a turnover of £94m a year, later told The Caterer that it took any matter involving its food and restaurant “extremely seriously”, including the charge relating to the menu description of the Aragosta e Gamberoni dish.
“Every one of our dishes goes through robust research, testing, training and review, with many receiving awards. In this case we made a genuine mistake in the incomplete naming of the dish for which we are very sorry.
“We had no intention of misleading our customers. Immediately after we became aware of the issue, the fresh pasta dish in question was replaced by the Pasta Fresca King Prawn and Crayfish dish.
“We also ensured our team refreshed their training in labelling legislation and we continue to invest in state-of-the-art systems and processes to ensure compliance.”