By Cam Lucadou-Wells
I Cook Foods had alleged long-standing hygiene issues, including past cases of listeria and no listeria management plan, according to Greater Dandenong Council.
But the company had never been prosecuted until being served 96 charges relating to four days of inspections in February 2019, a Parliamentary inquiry has heard.
Greater Dandenong Council tabled a list of “non-compliances” that required clean-ups and corrective action in 2016, 2017 and 2018. This included the company relaying the floor in 2017.
Legal and social issues committee member and Liberal MP Wendy Lovell posed why the ongoing alleged issues including pooling of water – a significant listeria risk – and flaws with the set-up hadn’t led to I Cook Foods’ closure earlier.
“All of a sudden all of these charges are laid.”
Harriet Shing, David Limbrick and Matthew Bach followed similar lines of enquiry.
The 96 charges – subsequently dropped by the council – were laid after Leanne Johnson and Elizabeth Garlick made their first visits to the plant.
“My inspection related to listeriosis and what was being found at the time,” Ms Johnson said.
“We had a risk to public health.”
On 18 February, poor food handling and processes were observed by Inspector Garlick.
The defects included inadequate staff training in food handling, washing down from high-pressure hoses near where food was being prepared, unclean equipment not properly cleaned and a slug on the floor.
Two days later, Inspector Garlick found the requested “deep” clean-up was not satisfactory.
Ms Johnson also visited that day and found “significant” non-compliances, cross-contamination risks and poor hygiene practices.
She listed ovens outside the kitchen in the open-air, plastic bread crates being washed in the bin wash area, residue in the meat slicer, dishwashing near the food preparation area, and pooling of water.
For several years, food health inspector and whistleblower Kim Rogerson had been inspecting the factory. She’d collected the first listeria samples and swabbing of surfaces on 1 February.
She was on leave during Ms Johnson and Ms Garlick’s inspection.
Ms Rogerson had told the inquiry that I Cook Foods’ closure was “over-the top” and “highly irregular”, accusing the council of being “intent on destroying” I Cook Foods.
Ms Johnson did not agree with Ms Rogerson’s evidence that I Cook Foods was a “professional operation”.
Though large and successful, the business had several non-compliances with the Food Act, Ms Johnson said.
After the closures, Ms Rogerson said that she’d previously raised with I Cook Foods about it outgrowing its site, the need for segregation of areas and the pooling of water, Ms Johnson told the hearing.
Ms Johnson said past issues had led to the factory’s flooring being relaid in 2017.
There was also a “history” of listeria – two cases including a case picked up by Boroondara Council sampling. On that occasion, Ms Rogerson directed I Cook Foods to clean the factory.
The difference in the most recent case was that a person had tested positive to listeria, Ms Johnson said.
I Cook Foods has stated that the listeria levels found in sandwich samples were well within food standards.
But Ms Johnson said no level was acceptable. The food was potentially hazardous given I Cook Foods’ vulnerable clientele, including aged care, Meals on Wheels and hospital patients.