15 Jul 2015

Company fined over hospital listeria deaths

7:16 pm on 15 July 2015

Hawke's Bay meat processor Bay Cuisine has been fined $130,000 after it admitted selling contaminated meat to Hawke's Bay Hospital, which contributed to a deadly food poisoning outbreak.

In 2012, a hospital investigation revealed samples of ready-to-eat meats supplied by the company led to listeria claiming the life of 68-year-old Patricia Hutchinson and contributing to the death of an 81-year-old woman.

Two other people also became ill but recovered.

Samples of ready-to-eat meats supplied to the hospital by Bay Cuisine tested positive to listeria.

Bay Cuisine and two employees pleaded guilty in the Napier District Court last month to a total of 10 charges, including selling contaminated food, suppressing test results and omitting to provide information to the Ministry for Primary Industries.

It was not charged in connection with the listeria deaths or infections.

At sentencing in the Napier District Court today, Judge Bridget Mackintosh fined the meat processing company $130,000.

The summary of facts said the hospital requested copies of all test results Bay Cuisine had carried out for listeria.

Production manager Christopher Mackie replied by telling the DHB a batch of corned silverside had tested negative for listeria, but he left out a set of test results which actually came back "presumptive positive".

In the first deception prosecution under the Animal Products Act, the company admitting withholding test results that showed its product was linked to the listeria outbreak.

Bay Cuisine Production manager Christopher Mackie was fined $30,000 after admitting he withheld test results. A director, Garth Wise, was also fined $32,500.

Hawke's Bay District Health Board Chief Executive, Dr Kevin Snee, said the greatest impact had been on the families directly affected by the listeria outbreak.

He said the case also impacted on many of the district health board's staff, not only because of its seriousness, but also because of the length of time the investigation had taken.

"Most concerning for the district health board has been finding that a former valued food supplier has pleaded guilty to offences relating to deceiving and suppressing test results of contaminated food that it supplied to the district health board's kitchen.

"As an organisation that highly values patient safety, we cannot emphasise enough how shocked we were to learn this, knowing the seriousness of listeria contamination and the potential consequences," Dr Snee said.

While the company had been ordered to pay a large fine as a consequence of its actions, the district health board would have preferred to see the company facing more severe charges that reflect the seriousness of those acts, and the toll those actions have taken on people's lives, he said.

Ministry of Primary Industries Senior Investigator, Peter Dwen, said it was a thorough investigation that resulted in deception charges under the Animal Products Act.

"Deception in food safety is particularly serious and this is the first time these charges have been laid.

"We are very pleased with the outcome of the prosecution. The court clearly takes this sort of offending very seriously," he said.

Bay Cuisine said it had no comment after the sentencing, however in a statement issued after its guilty plea said it did not knowingly sell any listeria-contaminated cooked meats.

It said some some products tested positive for the bug but the results were at a level described by the Ministry for Primary Industries as marginal.

The company admitted it could have acted more appropriately in communicating with the hospital about the test results.

Bay Cuisine said it stopped making cooked sliced meats in 2012 and implemented a number of changes.