Lawmakers and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman have vowed to investigate the sale of salmonella-tainted cornflakes by Unilever Israel reported last week.
The Knesset State Control Committee will convene an urgent meeting on the issue on Tuesday, calling lawmakers back from recess to seek an inquiry into the apparent failure of the Health Ministry to prevent the distribution of tainted cereal.
Hundreds of boxes of the salmonella-affected cornflakes cannot be accounted for by manufacturer Unilever Israel, which owns the “Telma” brand of cereals and foodstuffs, amid fears they have been sold in Israeli shops despite a widespread recall.
According to Channel 10 television over the weekend, a Unilever inspection early Friday morning showed that 240 packets of the cereal are neither on supermarket shelves nor in storerooms, and are thought to have been sold by the Shufersal supermarket chain around the country. The boxes are reportedly from the same shipment as the tainted package that sparked a recall last week.
The company originally said that none of the affected products ever reached store shelves.
“Unilever lied to us all from the start,” Zionist Union MK Itzik Shmuli said on Saturday. “But the Health Ministry is equally responsible, with tens of thousands of boxes being poisoned, it just missed this. We are asking the comptroller what happened here.”
Knesset State Control Committee Chair MK Karin Elharar (Yesh Atid) echoed the sentiment: “Israel can’t rely on the self-reporting of companies. The Health Ministry has to scrutinize production lines. We want to ask where the Health Ministry’s role was in this?”
According to Channel 10, concerns about the missing cornflakes arose when a customer called Unilever’s hotline to say that she had purchased one of the recalled boxes. The company then contacted Shufersal, Israel’s largest supermarket chain, which apparently sold the box at its branch in Kibbutz Be’erot Yitzhak, in the center of the country.
The hasty inspection following the customer’s phone call revealed that there were no boxes from the shipment in question anywhere in the chain’s stores.
“We see in this announcement [that tainted boxes were sold] a result of negligence on the part of the company, both towards the public and toward the Health Ministry,” the ministry said in a statement late Saturday.
There are no immediate reports of heightened salmonella exposure, the ministry said.
“The species of salmonella [in question] is not rare or aggressive. It may cause diarrhea or fever,” the statement added. “If these symptoms appear, please turn to your doctor.”
The Health Ministry set up its own inquiry, headed by Prof. Itamar Gruto, head of the ministry’s public health services department.
The inquiry team will visit the Unilever Israel factory in Arad for a “comprehensive inspection,” and would consider legal action against the company.
Health Minister Litzman threatened on Friday to revoke the company’s license to operate in Israel over its repeated assertions that no tainted boxes were shipped out of its factory.
But some critics focused on the Health Ministry’s own failures.
Shmuli and Elharrar are calling on State Comptroller Yosef Shapira to investigate the ministry’s oversight mechanisms that allowed the tainted cereal to leave the factory in the first place.
Unilever has already been accused of apparently trying to hide the bacterial contamination by secretly halting distribution of tens of thousands of cereal products.
The Ynet news site reported that the company had apparently not only stonewalled the media, but had also attempted to evade inquiries from the Health Ministry on the matter.
According to Channel 2 television, stores had been complaining for days of shortages in the international company’s cornflakes and Deli Pecan cereal. But the company initially denied there was a problem and attempted to downplay the issue when questioned by the media.
It was only after the press began reporting on the mysterious shortages that the company admitted that testing had revealed salmonella bacteria in an undisclosed (“not many”) number of boxes.
Unilever announced Thursday that worried buyers wishing to return the products could do so, even if they had been opened.