The former owner of a Watford steakhouse has been found guilty of selling horse and venison meats as exotic zebra and wildebeest dishes.

Kunal Soni, 32, of Belswains Lane in Hemel Hempstead, was ordered to pay £3,860.78 costs after pleading guilty to misinforming customers.

In April last year, two officers from Hertfordshire County Council’s trading standards service attended The Steakhouse restaurant in St Albans Road to carry out a test purchase following a complaint about meat substitution at the restaurant, which offers various exotic meats on the menu.

The officers, who were the only two customers in the restaurant, placed their order with Mr Soni for one zebra and one wildebeest.

Only after the food had been served and the officers had identified themselves did Mr Soni indicate that the chef had made a mistake.

In the kitchen, the officers noticed a ticket in relation to their order reading “1 venison, chips and salad; 1 horse, chips and salad” with no reference to either zebra or wildebeest.

The meals were sent for analysis, which identified that the meat served as zebra was in fact horse, and the meat served as wildebeest was, in fact, red deer.

A month later, trading standards officers returned to the restaurant and found that the freezer contained in excess of 22kg of what was labelled as horse meat – more than any other type of meat. Neither the words “horse” nor “venison” appeared on the restaurant menu.

At St Albans Magistrates' Court on Monday, Mr Soni didn’t dispute that offences had been committed but argued that he was merely helping out at the restaurant, having just sold the business to the chef and therefore should only expect to have limited responsibility.

Magistrates were told Mr Soni had described himself as a manager on three separate occasions to the local authorities, including the date of the test purchase.

They said there had been an “obvious opportunity” to defer to the chef during the officers' visit. The action Mr Soni had taken, a mere verbal check of the order, was insufficient.

The court was advised that Mr Soni was now a man of very limited means and that his outgoings exceeded his income and he was given a 12-month conditional discharge for the offences.

Mr Soni can therefore be made subject to further punishment for this offence should he commit any further offence during the period of the discharge.

Richard Thake, cabinet member for community protection at the county council, said: “The public must have confidence in the food that is put in front of them when eating out.

"There can be implications regarding traceability of the food, allergens and religious concerns in some cases.

"Passing off food as something that it is not puts other competing businesses at a disadvantage and undermines trust in the market.”

  • The restaurant was taken over in August by VG Restaurant Ltd.