(photo credit: AMY SPIRO)
Health Ministry officials toured the Unilever factory in Arad on Sunday and found that the company had acted “negligently but not maliciously” in the affair that led to salmonella-infected cereal on sale in Israeli supermarkets.
Prof. Itamar Grotto, associate director-general of the Health Ministry, led a team of experts in the tour of the plant Sunday morning. A spokeswoman for the Health Ministry said the company “fully cooperated” with them and said the manufacturer has hired an outside investigator to find out how the cereal had become infected with the bacteria. More work on the matter is needed, said the ministry.
The ministry decided to temporarily suspend the company’s GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) status, an authorization that exempts them from routine tests.
To prevent further cases of bacteria infecting its products, the ministry said samples of the products will be tested more frequently than before “until further notice.” The team reportedly took samples of the company’s products during the Sunday morning tour.
While Unilever first claimed that no infected cereal boxes had made it to store shelves, they were later forced to recant that statement. After changing its statement several times, the company admitted that some 240 boxes of Telma-brand cornflakes and coco pops contaminated with salmonella had reached certain stores.
Salmonella is a bacterium connected with animal or human tissues and feces and found everywhere in the environment – in the earth, in the human bowel, in raw chicken, red meat and fish, and elsewhere.
If virulent, it can cause diarrhea or worse in babies and the elderly who have weaker immune systems, but the bacteria in the cereals were not virulent, according to the ministry.
Hand washing prevents its spread, and proper cooking of food kills the pathogens.
Grotto said Salmonella infections had not risen higher than normal in the last few weeks. Veteran clinical dietitian Dr. Olga Raz said the story had been “exaggerated” and “sensationalized” by the media and that the matter was not health issue but a lack of transparency by the company.
Large food producers are allowed by ministry inspectors – after initial examinations – to test the quality of their products on their own, as the ministry has too few inspectors to cover all food products and manufacturers.
Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman first addressed the issue on Friday, after over a week of silence. Litzman said the ministry is considering legal action against Unilever.
MK Itzik Shmuli (Zionist Union), chairman of the safety lobby in the Knesset, and Yesh Atid MK Karen Elharar, chairman of the Knesset State Control committee, said the committee must meet urgently to investigate the activities of the Health Ministry in supervising (or failing to supervise) Unilever.