Unilever Israel Can’t Explain How Salmonella Was Found in Breakfast Cereal Again

Unilever claims to have learned its lesson, and as soon as contamination was suspected the merchandise was quarantined.

Cereal boxes photographed at a Jerusalem supermarket on June 19, 2016.
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

The Unilever management convened for an emergency discussion over the weekend, in order to understand how for the second time in less than three months it finds itself involved in a salmonella controversy. CEO Anat Gavriel, other executives and the public relations firm that Unilever hired to handle the previous salmonella crisis, convened for a long time in an attempt to agree on how to provide complete answers to the media – after the concealment last time aroused harsh reactions.

The problem is that the Unilever management can’t explain the incident. How is it that once again, within such a short time, salmonella was found on the company’s production line? Unilever still doesn’t know about the source of the present contamination, or whether the cause is human or environmental. Nor can they explain the source of the previous contamination.

The company has boasted since Thursday evening, when the incident was revealed on TheMarker website, that its thorough examinations enabled discovery of the contamination before the products left the plant.

But many food company executives said that proximate incidents of dangerous salmonella bacteria are very unusual. Especially in dry products such as breakfast cereals, which don’t usually develop salmonella.

“It’s very unusual that within a short time there’s salmonella on a production line or in the packaging of breakfast cereals. Cereals are a dry product that shouldn’t contain salmonella in the first place – and contamination during production or packaging is rarer than contamination from the raw ingredients, as happened with the raw tahini,” said an executive in a large food corporation. Another executive wondered: “They cleaned the plant from A to Z only about two months ago – how is it happening again?”

Another food executive said, “I manufacture dry goods and have never had any contamination from salmonella in my products. It’s not clear what’s happening in that plant that’s causing so many cases of contamination in such a short time.”

Proof that the situation is unusual: Unilever itself said when salmonella was found in its products in late June that this was the first time contamination had surfaced in the past three years. Now it’s the second time within less than three months.

“Unilever resumed the manufacture and marketing of products without having any idea of the source of the contamination last time – and here we’re seeing another contamination. If the company doesn’t know the source, how can they ensure that it won’t be repeated? Maybe the Health Ministry should check the situation more thoroughly,” said another executive.

Last time the contamination affected about 152,000 packages of Telma Cornflakes, Telma Cornflakes with the Badatz kashrut seal, and Cocoman, which were manufactured in the course of five days. This time it’s over 52,000 packages of Telma Kariot Nougat cereal, manufactured in the course of three days.

Unilever’s response: “As we discovered last time, in food production sometimes there is contamination. Every responsible food company is obligated to discover it and to ensure that tainted products won’t reach the market. That’s exactly what we’ve done now. As far as we’re concerned, every case of contamination is exceptional, regardless of proximity. We performed all the required activities in order to find the source of the contamination, as well as a large number of tests, to ensure that in each case no tainted products will be marketed.”

During the previous episode of contamination Unilever said that they had examined the employees to see whether they were ill or carriers of salmonella. When asked about the findings, the company now replied: “All the employees work according to strict hygienic standards. The plant has nothing to indicate that the cause of the contamination is one of the employees. After consulting with international experts, the company was told that in any case, it’s impossible to identify a direct connection between an employee and contamination on the line.”

Unilever’s license restored a week ago

Only a week ago the Health Ministry returned to the Unilever plant in Arad the highest grade manufacturing license, GMP (a license given to only about 80 plants in Israel, which allows them to export), which was temporarily suspended due to the previous incident.

The Health Ministry said in response to the latest incident, “The ministry is continuing to follow the situation closely. We received an initial notice about the contamination on the day when the phone message was received from the laboratory.”

It should be noted that companies can now no longer keep information about contamination inside the company. Since the previous Unilever incident, the Health Ministry has tightened procedures, and now requires the external laboratories that perform the tests to inform the ministry about every positive result for salmonella or listeria, or lose Health Ministry recognition.

In the case of Osem, too, which last week told the media that it had reported positive results for salmonella in Tzabar Salads to the Health Ministry, and in the case of Unilever – the announcement was mandatory, and not dependent on good will. In fact, before the instructions were changed, the companies often refrained from reporting to the ministry on contamination inside the company, if they thought that no contaminated products would be marketed.

The Health Ministry also said, “Although an unusual result was obtained from the pallet manufactured on September 18, the entire series dated September 18-20, 2016 is earmarked for destruction early next week, in coordination with the district food service in the Health Ministry. The company has begun an in-depth investigation, including an analysis of the raw ingredients, infrastructure and the manufacturing process, in order to identify the circumstances of the contamination. As part of the investigation the sampling program on the Kariot Nougat assembly line has been reinforced.”

On Friday evening TheMarker website revealed that once again there was salmonella contamination in Unilever’s breakfast cereal. The company confirmed the details and said that on Tuesday it would get initial results from an external lab regarding a suspicion of salmonella in as yet unsold Kariot Nougat cereal, and that it would get final results only on Friday.

Shortly afterwards the company issued a press release. The announcement was published when Unilever was almost certain that the final results would confirm the contamination. On Friday morning the company issued another announcement, in accordance with the final lab results, in which it once again described the product suspected of being tainted and the production dates. The notice explained, “The packages manufactured in this series have been in full quarantine from the moment of manufacture and haven’t been marketed.”

The company performed a physical examination of the quarantined pallets, including checking the identifying labels and making sure the labels suited the contents. After completing all the tests, it was found that all the packages produced in this series are in fact in quarantine, and the destruction procedure began, and will be completed early next week.

“The company asserts that all the products on the shelves have been tested and are safe to use. The company has expanded the monitoring system to ensure that no product will reach the market before receiving laboratory approval, and is working according to the instructions of the Health Ministry and the strict standards of international Unilever to ensure the safety of its products.”

In the previous instance Unilever lacked transparency and credibility, and misled the media and the public. First it concealed the truth when asked why there was a shortage of cereals in the stores. It also failed to report the contamination to the Health Ministry. After TheMarker exposed the incident Unilever admitted the suspicion of salmonella but claimed that no contaminated products were on the shelves. Later it turned out that a pallet with 240 packages had been sold to consumers.

Unilever still claims that it didn’t know about the pallet. But in fact the company knew about the contamination for a month and didn’t tell anyone, and the products weren’t destroyed, but were kept with packages designated for sale in an outside warehouse that wasn’t informed that the products were contaminated.

Unilever also refused to reveal the problematic production dates until the Health Ministry forced it to do so, and misled the public as to which products were contaminated. Unilever claims to have learned its lesson, and as soon as contamination was suspected the merchandise was quarantined. Last time the contaminated merchandise was in computerized quarantine only (blocked barcode) but this time it was fenced off from the marketable merchandise.