Epicurean Dairy Limited, which makes dairy products under "The Collective" brand, and its former directors have been fined a total of $483,000 NZD for repeatedly failing to report positive Listeria results taken from the company's factory in Avondale.
During this period, the company also falsified official related records.
In the Waitakere District Court, Epicurean Dairy — whose products include yoghurt, puddings and ‘suckies' for children — and the company's former general manager, Angus Allan, pleaded guilty to 10 charges of failure to report positive environmental Listeria results.
The company was fined $369,000 and Angus Allan, $54,000. Court costs of $80,000 were also imposed.
Former operations manager, Ilya Pyzhanhov, was convicted and fined $60,000 earlier in 2019 after pleading guilty to five charges of deliberately withholding positive environmental Listeria results.
Investigation into Epicurean
The charges follow an investigation by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) following an anonymous tip-off from a confidential informant.
According to Gary Orr, Director of Compliance at MPI, the company was wilfully blind and careless.
From 2012 to 2016, it repeatedly failed to report positive Listeria results taken from the floor in an area where yoghurt and cheese were produced at the company's factory in Avondale.
"The part of the factory that was producing positive environmental Listeria results was an area where the most stringent food safety requirements applied," explained Orr.
"It's clear that if the company had reported the positive results, there would've been significant costs associated with remedying the problem — including replacing a cracked and unhygienic floor, as well as [halting] production due to the work that needed to be done."
"This was serious, systematic and sustained deception — there's no other way to describe it," he continued.
"The company was regularly audited to ensure its manufacturing environment was in accordance with regulatory requirements but it lied about what the true situation was."
During this time, 190 positive environmental Listeria results went unreported.
What is Listeria?
Listeria is a genus of bacteria that includes the strain Listeria monocytogenes, which is a common cause of food poisoning. It is most commonly contracted by eating improperly processed deli meats and unpasteurised milk products.
Listeria infection can cause illness in healthy people, but it can be especially dangerous for vulnerable populations like pregnant women, children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.
For vulnerable populations, Listeria infection can have devastating consequences, including blood infections, meningitis or even death.
Listeria infection can be fatal for unborn babies and newborns. Even if the mother experiences mild or no symptoms at all, food-borne Listeria infection can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth or life-threatening infection in the newborn.
Listeria monocytogenes is extremely resilient and can survive refrigeration and even freezing, which is why safe food preparation and hygienic practices are of critical importance in any food premise, from food processing plants to food retailers, restaurants and fast food chains.
Food safety training is vital to ensuring food safety and compliance with federal, state and territory laws and regulations. For more information about food safety training, contact the Australian Institute of Food Safety.
Penalties for non-compliance
Failure to comply with Australia’s food safety laws and regulations can have serious financial and legal consequences for a company, its directors, managers and employees. This case is a prime example.
Despite claiming that he was kept in the dark by former operations manager, Ilya Pyzhanhov, Angus Allan was held personally responsible for the company’s failures to report positive Listeria results. Epicurean Dairy was slapped with a $369,000 fine.
In a statement, the company said "we want to apologise and reassure everyone that food safety is a top priority for us and that no unsafe products [were] ever sold to the public."
"As soon as we were informed of the misreporting we acted immediately. The factory manager [Pyzhanhov] who was responsible for this reporting left the business three years ago."
At this time, there have been no reported consumer health impacts as a result of the environmental contamination and the company has since replaced the worn factory floor where Listeria was present.
However, according to Orr, “there is no excuse for this type of blatant and sustained offending. When offending of this nature is detected, we will hold those responsible for it to account.”