We will probably never discover why Cadbury switched from a zero tolerance approach to assuming there were ‘safe’ levels of salmonella in chocolate, say Birmingham City Council food safety experts.
Cadbury abandoned the safe levels approach after its chocolate was found to have been exposed to salmonella contamination in 2006. Speaking to Food Manufacture a year after Cadbury was fined £1M for breaching food safety laws after the salmonella incident, Birmingham City Council food safety team leader Nick Lowe said: “There are still a lot of unanswered questions surrounding this case. But for me, the biggest is: why, in 2003, did Cadbury switch from a zero tolerance approach to a regime that assumed there was a ‘safe’ threshold for salmonella?
“They still haven’t answered this basic question, but because they put their hands up and admitted liability, they were never forced to stand up in a courtroom and explain why they did it. And I suspect we will never find out.”
It was only as the investigation unfolded that Lowe’s team discovered that Cadbury had radically changed its safety procedures without telling its home authority. Traditionally, any contamination incident would lead to the immediate recall and destruction of the affected batch. Under the new system, if chocolate was found to be below what was deemed a safe level, there was no recall, said Lowe.
He added: “In the course of our investigation, we seized a lot of documents, and written answers were also provided to some of our questions. But they did not let us interview key executives in person to answer the question of why the company changed its procedures without any clear external verification. I always maintain that if they had made one phone call to us, we would have told them it wasn’t the right thing to do.”
The judge presiding over the case in Birmingham Crown Court last summer said Cadbury had accepted that its new testing system was both a “distinct departure from previous practice”, and “badly flawed and wrong”
Lowe said: “When we asked on what basis they felt that there were acceptable levels of salmonella in chocolate, Cadbury referred us to a microbiological paper written for the Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate & Confectionery Association. But we read the paper and couldn’t see on what grounds it provided any validation of what they were doing.
“This is a large, multi-national organisation with access to the most up-to-date technical expertise in the field of microbiology; I am just astounded that they embarked on this radical change in policy without getting it checked out properly. It’s inconceivable to me that microbiologists wouldn’t have told them that the presence of salmonella in ready-to-eat foods, particularly those with a high fat content like chocolate, is unacceptable at any level.”
Cadbury’s method of analysing and interpreting the lab results was also outdated, he says. “They were using a statistical method that relies on an even spread of the contaminant but that’s not the way it works. Chocolate is not homogeneous. You could have salmonella in three bars and none in several thousand. You can’t measure the risk by averaging out the infection across all the bars.”
He added: “We tried to argue in court that the new (2003) approach was to avoid waste, but we couldn’t prove that beyond reasonable doubt. Cadbury argued that it switched for quality reasons, but I still can’t understand how that is possible.”
Cadbury spokesman, Tony Bilsborough declined to comment further on the case, but said the company had “put up our hands” and accepted that mistakes had been made, but that it had always acted in good faith: “Mistakenly, we did not believe that there was a threat to health and thus any requirement to report the incident to the authorities; we accept that this approach was incorrect.”
Anthony Scrivener, QC for Cadbury, which spent £15M recalling the contaminated chocolate and a further £20M on safety modifications, added: “Negligence we admit, but we certainly do not admit that this was done deliberately to save money and nor is there any evidence to support that conclusion.”
All batches of chocolate crumb leaving Cadbury’s factory in Marlbrook are now on a positive release system, said Bilsborough. Previously, crumb sent to factories in Bournville and Somerdale for further processing was released on a “just-in-time” basis, with test results coming back only after the crumb had made it into chocolate bars.