Contaminated Cereal Shipped Out of Israeli Factory Despite Awareness of Problem

Unilever failed to separate tainted products for weeks after salmonella fears were raised.

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

Unilever Israel failed to physically separate breakfast cereal it knew to be contaminated from safe products and accidentally allowed one pallet to be shipped out of its factory in Arad by accident, TheMarker has learned.

Worse still, the company was unaware it had shipped out the contaminated pallet, which contained 240 boxes of breakfast cereal, for more than a month after it happened. It only learned about the accidental shipment last Thursday, after initially denying any products infected with the salmonella bacteria had ever left its plant. The tainted cereals included particular batches of Cornflakes, Delipecan and Cocoman – all marketed by Telma.

The news about Unilever Israel’s negligence in storing the contaminated products came as the company faced mounting criticism from health authorities and the public for its handling of the salmonella outbreak. “Unilever failed to act responsibly,” Health Minister Yaakov Litzman told a radio interviewer on Friday. “We take the fact that it lied to the public and the Health Ministry very seriously.”

On Sunday, a Health Ministry team visiting the plant revoked its Good Manufacturing practice permit, a move that doesn’t prevent production from continuing uninterrupted, but the move does strike a blow to its reputation.

“The company cooperated fully with the inspection. The Health Ministry team believes that the incident was a series of negligent errors and not a case of anything intentional on the part of the company’s management and quality-control system,” the ministry said in a statement.

It added it had yet to discover the source of the contamination.

In the last several days, Unlever has been distributing to the media photos showing its contaminated products set off by a barrier from its safe ones, but TheMarker has learned that the barrier was only erected about two weeks ago – long after the factory received its first warning of a problem.

According to information obtained by TheMarker, the contaminated batch of breakfast cereal was manufactured June 27 and moved to the plant’s warehouse where it was assigned a barcode. At the time, there was no reason to suspect anything was wrong with the products.

However, two days later, the company received notice from the lab performing a routine test on the batch saying it had identified as yet undetermined bacteria in the cereal. Nevertheless, factory managers failed to separate the contaminated products, which amounted to 154,000 packages, from other products for the next three-and-a-half weeks.

Management apparently relied on the fact that the suspected batch could be identified by factory employees by its barcode, which would alert them not to send out the product to retailers. In retrospect, however, it appears an employee affixed the wrong barcode to at least one pallet of the contaminated products.

On Thursday, Unilever Israel learned from a supermarket that had received a contaminated consignment because a store employee recognized it based on the production date. By that time, the issue of the salmonella contamination, which Unilever had initially sought to keep hidden, had leaked. In fact, the Health Ministry only learned about the problem through the media.

An internal investigation revealed that the contaminated products had been shipped from the factory June 30, some five weeks earlier, but that management had not realized it.

Sources in the food industry said they were surprised that Unilever hadn’t destroyed the contaminated batch of products long ago. The standard industry practice is to burn infected products after the problem has been detected.

In response, Unilever Israel – the Israeli unit of the giant European food maker and personal-care products maker – cited logistical problems.

“This involved destroying an unusually large quantity of products in our factory, which requires special preparations by professionals in order to prevent any quarantined products from accidentally getting out into the market,” the company said. “Measures will be taken in coordination with the Health Ministry.”

People with salmonella infection often have no symptoms but can develop diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps within eight to 72 hours. Most healthy people recover within a few days without specific treatment. Yet life-threatening complications may develop if the infection spreads beyond the intestines.