By Cam Lucadou-Wells
Greater Dandenong Council abandoned all 96 charges against Dandenong South factory I Cook Foods and director Ian Cook only to avoid legal costs of up to $1.2 million, a Parliamentary inquiry heard.
Despite dropping the case, the council’s city planning director Jody Bosman told the Upper House inquiry into I Cook Foods’ closure that the prosecution was not “without foundation” or “doubtful of success”.
The charges related to numerous breaches of the Food Act such as uncleanliness, food residue and a slug found on the factory floor.
They arose during inspections of I Cook Foods in February, triggered by an investigation into a patient with listeriosis.
Mr Bosman said he initially approved the charges due their seriousness and the risk posed to public safety at the time.
However on 3 October 2019, he received a call from the council’s barrister at Dandenong Magistrates’ Court.
I Cook Foods was contesting all charges, indicating it would exhaust every avenue of appeal, Mr Bosman said.
The council’s barrister said the council could settle to drop all charges and both parties “walk away on a non-disparaging basis” bearing their own legal costs to that point.
During that five-minute phone call, Mr Bosman decided not to pursue the case. The main factor was the legal cost to ratepayers, he said.
It should not be seen as “vindication” of I Cook Foods’ position, Mr Bosman told the inquiry.
The charges did not relate to the patient’s alleged listeriosis-related death, Mr Bosman said.
That infection was the basis for the Department of Health and Human Services closing I Cook Foods for more than a month in February 2019.
I Cook Foods argues the closure was wrongful and motivated to protect a failing business Community Chef, part-owned by Greater Dandenong Council and significantly financed by the DHHS.
The shut-down by “my competitor” effectively destroyed the 33-year-old business and costing 41 workers their jobs, Mr Cook says.
Deputy Chief Health Officer Angie Bone was asked by the inquiry’s chair Fiona Patten if she was surprised that all charges were dropped.
“I was to be honest that all charges were dropped,” Ms Bone replied.
“As we were not the direct regulator, we can’t take the action ourselves. We didn’t know that (City of Greater Dandenong) was dropping the charges until that point.”