A parliamentary inquiry into the closure of an Australian catering business has found the council failed in its role as a regulator.

I Cook Foods, which provided pre-packed meals to hospitals and the aged care sector, was temporarily closed in February 2019 during attempts to find the source of infection after an 86-year-old woman with listeriosis died.

The investigation led to a closure order which ultimately resulted in the loss of contracts and clients, employees being made redundant, and shutting down the business. Witnesses told the inquiry it was not normal for a site to remain shut under a closure order for a month. I Cook Foods was charged with 48 breaches of the Food Act but these were later dropped by the City of Greater Dandenong.

Council failed in aspects of the regulatory role
The Legislative Council Legal and Social Issues Committee made 13 recommendations following an eight-week investigation that concluded I Cook Foods was not subject to a sound and proper process and there were significant shortcomings in how the firm was dealt with by food safety regulators.

“We found that the closure order was validly executed but that the framework in which the decision to impose the order was made and the processes that led to this decision were inadequate and that I Cook Foods was not dealt with in a fair or consistent way,” said committee chair Fiona Patten.

“The City of Greater Dandenong Council failed in many aspects of their role as regulator. In fact, the committee received evidence of inconsistent reporting practices, fluctuation in inspection procedures, inadequate processes, inadequate adherence to the processes in place, and poor communication by the City of Greater Dandenong.”

The committee heard evidence that highlighted outdated provisions in the Food Act 1984 contributed to difficulties in the investigation. The Department of Health and Human Services needs more powers for food safety regulation in Victoria, according to the inquiry.

“The Food Act 1984 is complex and outdated and should be amended to ensure that certain processes are consistently regulated and decrease the likelihood of situations such as this one arising in the future,” said Patten.

Spotlight on conflict of interest
The committee considered whether there was improper conduct in the closure of I Cook Foods due to a conflict of interest relating to the council CEO’s position on the board of rival business, Community Chef, and/or pending sale of this firm to the State Government.

“It is problematic for the chief executive officer of a local council to have conflicting interests within the same industry they are empowered to regulate,” according to the inquiry report.

Community Chef, created with 14 Victorian local councils, had been operating at a loss since 2016 and did gain additional business following the closure of I Cook Foods but the committee could not determine if this was directly due to any of the parties involved.

At the time of closure, I Cook Foods employed 41 staff and was estimated to provide 7,000 meals per week. Clients were emailed on Feb. 21, 2019 about its closure. This was before I Cook Foods had been formally notified of the closure order.

“It is unacceptable and improper that clients of I Cook Foods Pty Ltd were notified of its closure prior to the business being closed,” said the committee.

Listeria positives possibly related
The trigger for the investigation was an 86-year-old woman contracting Listeriosis at Knox Private Hospital. Of 25 samples taken from the I Cook Foods premises in February 2019, Listeria monocytogenes strains in four food samples of ham and corned beef sandwiches were possibly related to the human sample. Levels found were under the limit in the Food Standards Code.

The City of Greater Dandenong’s three to four-yearly portfolio rotation policy for environmental health officers were not followed in relation to I Cook Foods Pty Ltd.

Ian Cook, director of the company, told a hearing the company had never been cited for unsafe practices. Records from the Dandenong council demonstrated concerns about the presence of Listeria, and food safety practices dating back to 2015. Some issues included problems with the floor, large oven placement, a configuration of walkways, rusty or damaged equipment, and deficiencies in the food safety plan. Between 2016 and 2018 the council received 13 notifications or complaints about food originating from the facility.

Cook alleged an environmental health officer at the council planted a slug during an inspection of the company’s premises, a claim the EHO denied when asked by the committee. Victoria Police is investigating the closure of I Cook Foods.

“The City of Greater Dandenong did not ensure that long-term food safety issues at I Cook Foods were properly addressed in line with its food safety management processes and did not adequately communicate these issues to I Cook Foods as they arose. The abrupt nature of the escalation of known food safety issues at I Cook Foods is concerning and points to deficiencies in process and access to procedural fairness,” according to the committee.

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