By Cam Lucadou-Wells
I Cook Foods director Ian Cook has accused Health Minister Jenny Mikakos of “effectively defaming” him and his company during a ‘right of reply’ tabled in State Parliament.
In February 2019, the Dandenong South commercial caterer was shut down for a month by the Department of Health and Human Services and Greater Dandenong Council.
At the time, the department ‘named and shamed’ I Cook Foods, linking it to the death of an 86-year-old hospital patient.
However, all 96 food-safety charges against the company were later dropped.
In the meantime, the company had lost its contracts and was effectively destroyed, Mr Cook says.
Under Parliamentary privilege on 3 March, Ms Mikakos asserted that I Cook Foods was linked to the patient’s death.
She said the woman died of listeriosis, which was traced to food supplied by I Cook Foods.
“So this is why we have made no apology for the department taking the action that it took.”
In his right-of-reply tabled in the Legislative Council on 17 June, Mr Cook said the statement linking the patient’s death to I Cook Foods was “effectively defaming myself and my company”.
“This misinformation … adds to the damage that has been done to my family name which also is my company name, to the point where I have no customers or contracts remaining and the business and our reputation has been destroyed.
“I would like to also point out that this has had a massive financial and emotional impact on my family, myself, 41 workers and their families who lost their jobs due to the actions of the department.
“Therefore, respectfully I request that the house is informed of these untruths and that the record is corrected immediately in whatever manner is appropriate.”
Mr Cook stated there was no evidence of the patient eating any food products with listeria at the hospital.
The I Cook Foods sandwiches sampled and tested by authorities were 10 times under prescribed safe limits for listeria, he wrote.
In any case, DNA matches of the same bacteria were found in Queensland – a state which I Cook Foods doesn’t supply, he added.
“The source of the listeria had to be from an external supplier, perhaps our small goods supplier who does produce and distribute food nationally.”
Mr Cook urged that “the record is corrected immediately in whatever manner is appropriate”.
Later in Parliamentary Question Time, Ms Mikakos repeated her previous assertions of the link.
She had been asked by opposition health spokesperson Georgie Crozier about why the DHHS had delayed providing evidence that “exonerated” I Cook Foods.
The appropriate time for DHHS officials to respond was in their appearance at a Parliamentary inquiry into the I Cook Foods closure, Ms Mikakos said.
She said the DHHS had offered to provide the documents on a confidentiality basis only – which was later upheld by the Supreme Court of Victoria.
“In public health incidents there needs to be direct and robust communication between departmental employees, relevant authorities and authorised officers.
“These confidentiality provisions ensure continued reporting of public health risks and informed decision-making by the department so that appropriate action can be taken.
“There is nothing being hidden here.”