Not a floor you'd want to eat off of
Sauces and spreads maker Olivia says it's cleaned up its act after being caught in serial hygiene violations, including worms on the floor and open sewage traps.
Gourmet products manufacturer Olivia may describe its production facility as a pastoral-sounding "wooden house with a chimney" emitting the aroma of "a true kitchen," but it's a kitchen that is characterized by unhygienic conditions, ranging from mold in its dried-tomato storage containers to filth and creepy-crawlies on the floor.
Founded in 1990 by Yoel Benesh, Tnuva completed its buyout in 2002. Olivia sells its upmarket sauces and spreads in Israel, the United States, France and England. It also manufactures products for the Israeli foods companies Strauss, Maadanot and Sunfrost, and for American burgers giant McDonald's. In Israel its products command 8% of the market for sauces, 5% of the market for salad dressing, 2% of the soy sauce market and 2% of the market for margarine.
The "house" of Olivia is actually a 4,000-square-meter plant in Rehovot with 26 employees, which the company says produces healthy, quality gourmet products. But TheMarker has obtained pictures showing that inside, the conditions have apparently been unsanitary for years.
A food technician TheMarker consulted says the machinery is outdated and neglected.
One photograph shows two women emptying packets of salad dressing into buckets on the floor. An investigation found the dressings were designated for re-pasteurization and repackaging. Altogether the women emptied about 3,400 packets into the buckets; this happened four times in 2011, the company itself acknowledged.
Olivia says that the repackaged products were designated for the industrial market and that there is nothing wrong with the practice. At one level, the food technician agrees: "It is hard to believe that the sauces were damaged, since they undergo pasteurization. I hope they took a sample to a microbiological laboratory after repackaging. If they did, the risk they undertook is small."
That being said, he added, the salad dressing was designated for Strauss, and if representatives of that company had dropped by the Olivia plant and seen what the workers were doing, it would have dropped Olivia as a supplier on the spot.
Our inquiry found that the salad dressing was designated for Strauss' individually packaged "personal salads." Strauss commented that it would investigate: "If the findings prove true, we would view it gravely and will act accordingly."
Something similar happened with bottles of soy sauce. This past January, a production-line worker warned that the mouths of the bottles were defective. But, he says, the manager ordered work to continue. Some days later, the products were returned to the plant for rebottling. The workers were told to pour the sauce into basins. Even though the plant has no machine to clean the bottles, both the bottles and the soy sauce were reused.
Olivia claims that it is acceptable to reuse the emptied bottles if they're refilled within hours. The company claimed the event resulted from a single malfunction in the production chain of soy sauce bottles, after which procedures were amended.
The food technician says that any respectable company wouldn't reuse bottles, and suggests that Olivia may have been trying to economize. "The process doesn't comply with 'hazard analysis and critical control points,'" he said, referring to HACCP, an international safety standard for food preparation. Even if the product undergoes re-pasteurization, the bottles shouldn't have been reused that way, he said.
Looking at the pictures, another food technician TheMarker consulted continued: "Pouring the soy sauce into the basin looks sloppy, the order and hygiene are not optimal, but the worker is working with gloves and the basin looks reasonable; after cooking [pasteurization] it seems fine. However, not washing the bottles isn't right. There is no real danger to the public, but these aren't proper production conditions."
Sewage next to the production line
Early one morning last October, worms were documented on the plant's floor (the company later said they were caterpillars ). Workers related that for a long time, the sewage system had been backing up and often flooded the floor by the production line. In the room where bottles and jars are filled, the sewage trap was open and a pump installed inside transferred the filth to a channel passing inside the containers room.
A second food technician TheMarker consulted says the sewage channel shouldn't be open, and that it suggested that the system is constantly clogged.
The company stated that in September 2010, the plant's sewage line broke down. "Operations were halted, tests were conducted and an external bypass pump was installed that took care of the problem temporarily. In March 2011, the external sewage system was replaced at an investment of hundreds of thousands of shekels. It is important to state that in any event of blockage, work was immediately stopped until full clean-up."
In another area, workers in charge of maintaining the machinery have been complaining for a long time about the need to replace parts, but claim the plant manager refuses to buy them. "He says we don't have a storage room, or 'At my house the screwdriver doesn't break down.' We try to improvise and sometimes ask friends who work elsewhere for parts," one Olivia worker told TheMarker. A consumer recently complained about finding a rubber band in margarine. Olivia did not respond explicitly to this.
'All it needs is a calendar with naked women'
In October 2011, the production line shut down for three days after a worker complained about the unhygienic conditions to Tnuva, action he took, he claimed, after he was ignored by the Olivia management. A tape TheMarker obtained features Tnuva executive Yigal Gali saying, "I'm in shock. Yesterday I heard [Tnuva internal auditor] Margalit [Shperber], who saw worms on the floor with her own eyes. When I went downstairs, I saw a production line working with glass shards on the floor."
Yoel Benesh, present at that conversation, said on the tape that he'd been struggling with the hygiene issue for four years. "Not long ago I went downstairs and saw the Universal machine [which makes sauces] filthy."
Tnuva's quality manager, Michal Amsterdam, commented during the exchange that the problem with hygiene had been around a long time: "What's missing is resources to clean."
Benesh summed up: "What's needed here is a root canal, like they did at Maadanot. First of all clean, then work. It hasn't happened here for 1,001 reasons."
After that meeting, Gali convened the plant's workers and ordered them to undertake a cleaning blitz, and vowed to change sanitary standards at the plant.
The tape ends with one worker joking, "This place looks like a garage. All it needs is a calendar with naked women."
Gali left Tnuva in January. The plant was cleaned from top to bottom, but workers tell TheMarker that some procedures did not change and that the machinery is still neglected.
Another photograph shows sealed jars that were returned by stores, apparently because they were soiled. The jars are seen in a basin with water and rags, and were destined cleaning and re-sale. Olivia stated that a jar had broken in the container, soiling the exterior of the other jars, which were cleaned. It didn't open the jars or interfere with their content, the company said.
The food technician says however that leaving the jars sitting in water, with rags, as the photograph shows, can constitute a bacterial hazard. "Even if the lid is properly closed, contamination can build up at the opening," he said.
Other photos show moldy boxes of dried tomatoes imported from Turkey. "There are two ways to protect dried tomatoes," said the technician: "Put them in salt water or closed in a vacuum pack."
The plant held a second massive cleanup while this article was being written. A worker says that on March 14, when TheMarker contacted Tnuva for comment, Tnuva representatives visited the Olivia plant and dictated new hygiene procedures. All old materials were thrown out and the walls, floor and machinery were scrubbed down. Within days a statement was issued that the plant would be closed for a day for cleaning.
Olivia commented that it has been certified by the Standards Institute as complying with HACCP and ISO (quality assurance ) standards, and passes periodic inspections by the Health Ministry, as well as by customers. "All products go to market only after inspection at certified external labs and the quality of the products is assured. The claims made in this article were thoroughly checked, in the past and present, and we take them with the utmost seriousness. These were isolated events that were located and handled immediately and do not characterize routine operation."
In October the plant voluntarily closed for three days in order to upgrade cleaning and maintenance procedures, the company said, adding that it's hired a new plant manager.
McDonald's commented that it was flabbergasted by the findings and surprised that Olivia hadn't advised it of the hygiene problems back in October. "We accepted Olivia's apology for the event and not reporting it at the time," McDonald's said, adding that Olivia had advised it of the corrections and of improvements in its production line. Only 1% of its sauces in Israel are made by Olivia, McDonald's added: 99% are made by the U.S. company GSF.