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Salmonella-infected tahini leads to conviction

The New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) has today welcomed the conviction of a company for knowingly supplying Salmonella-infected tahini.

"People operating a food business are required to ensure that the product they are supplying is safe", said Geoff Allen, Director (Compliance and Investigation) for NZFSA. "We are very pleased that the Courts have taken a strong line in regard to the reckless behaviour we have seen in this case."

Last November the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) brought a case to court against Shefco NZ Ltd for knowingly supplying Salmonella-infected tahini. The defendant company pleaded guilty in the Auckland District Court to two representative charges under s11AA of the Food Act 1981. On 20 March 2008 Shefco NZ Ltd was convicted and fined $15,000 on each charge.

In his summing up, His Honour Judge Gittos acknowledged that the levels of penalty provided (a maximum fine of $100,000) meant that the mischief was seen as a serious concern. The Judge further said that the trader had a high duty of care to keep contaminated food isolated so it wasn't inadvertently sold and this duty must be punctiliously discharged. The fact that the product was not isolated in the warehouse and could be accessed showed a high degree of recklessness by the company.

"Food wholesalers have a greater impact on the market through the widespread distribution of product. In this case, the company was instructed not to sell the contaminated product but did not apply all due diligence to ensure this was followed through. The potential for a much wider outbreak was therefore very high. Food businesses must have robust housekeeping processes in place to prevent such a situation from occurring", said Geoff Allen.

The court heard how this case dated back to September 2003 following an outbreak of salmonellosis. During routine testing for the source of this outbreak, contaminated product was found on the defendant company's premises. The affected stock was held while the company negotiated with the supplier in Lebanon and this was when the isolation and detention failed, and some was distributed. Ultimately the stock was destroyed, which the Judge noted when setting the level of the fine.

At the time of the 2003 outbreak NZFSA implemented an Emergency Food Standard for Tahini. This meant that all imported tahini, crushed sesame seeds or foods containing these products would be monitored and tested prior to being released after arrival in the country. A permanent food standard is now in place and tahini importers are reminded of the importance of ensuring their tahini is tested on arrival.

NZFSA's website has further information about this rule: tm.


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