Epicurean Dairy Limited (EDL) – whose products include yogurt and ‘suckies' marketed to children – and the company's former general manager Angus Allan, pleaded guilty to a total of 10 charges of failing to report positive environmental Listeria results when they appeared in the Waitakere District Court this week.
EDL told DairyReporter Allan was unaware of the misreporting until it was brought to light by MPI and as soon as he was aware of it took immediate action. The company explained that the charges against Allan are liability charges as he had overall responsibility for the company as managing director at the time.
The company was fined NZ$369,000 (US$234,415), and Allan, NZ$54,000 (US$34,305). Court costs of NZ$80,000 (US$50,822) were also imposed.
The company's former operations manager, Ilya Pyzhanhov, was convicted and fined NZ$60,000 (US$38,118) after pleading guilty earlier this year to five charges of deliberately withholding positive environmental Listeria results.
The charges follow a complex and long-running investigation by the MPI, whose probe began after investigators were given credible information about the West Auckland company from a confidential informant.
MPI's director of compliance, Gary Orr, said that from 2012 to 2016 the company deliberately and repeatedly failed to report positive Listeria results that were taken from a floor at the company's factory in Avondale. During this period the company also falsified official related records.
He says a total of 190 positive Listeria results went unreported during this time.
"This was serious, systematic and sustained deception – there's no other way to describe it," Orr said.
"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.
"The part of the factory that was producing positive environmental Listeria results was an area where the most stringent food safety requirements applied. It was where yogurt and cheese was being produced for human consumption.
"It's clear that if the company had reported the positive results, there would've been significant costs associated with remedying the problem, which included replacing a cracked and unhygienic floor, as well as a halt to production due to the work that needed to be done.”
No product was affected and there were no consumer health impacts. Since the MPI investigation, the company has replaced the worn factory floor where the Listeria was present.
The company continues to operate with no further issues, MPI said.
Epicurean Dairy Limited sent a statement to DairyReporter, saying it understands there will be concern about charges relating to historical misreporting of test results in the company’s factory environment three years ago.
“We want to apologize and reassure everyone that food safety is a top priority for us and that no unsafe products ever sold to the public,” the statement said.
“Our products are enjoyed by Kiwi families and as soon as were informed of the misreporting we acted immediately. The factory manager who was responsible for this reporting left the business three years ago. They subsequently pleaded guilty and were convicted on mens rea charges (which means convicted of intent) and received a $60,000 fine.”
EDL added, “We conducted a thorough independent investigation and made significant updates to our factory and processes. We have been working closely with MPI long before the misreporting instances and since. Together, we have undertaken a frequent testing and auditing program and have now achieved MPI’s highest level rating possible for our quality systems (Level 5.1).”
EDL said practical steps it has taken include:
• Agreeing a new Risk Management Plan with MPI that has been in place for three years
• Investing in all key areas where there may have been a source of contamination including building and plant upgrades, as well as new equipment to ensure quality standards are maintained to risk mitigated
• Reviewing and refining systems and process by seeking independent, expert advice to ensure EDL continues to meet best-practice quality control standards
• Strengthening the capability and capacity of the operations team with team changes and appointing new well-credentialed managers with extensive industry and quality control experience
• Investing in staff training and upskilling by a well-respected, independent provider to reinforce expectations and lift capability and performance
• Engaging independent experts to test and strengthen EDL’s process and verify the effectiveness of the measures taken to improve quality control reporting and processes
EDL said, “It’s important to note that this investigation relates to reporting undertaken between October 2012 to August 2016. There have been no issues with non-reporting since then.
“Epicurean Dairy Limited meets all food safety standards and produces high quality, safe dairy products.”
The company added that the charges relate to the EDL’s operations in New Zealand only, and no other markets were affected.