Entertainment Leaked document sparks fresh questions over I Cook Foods closure

00:32  22 june  2021
00:32  22 june  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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An elderly woman whose death sparked a listeria scare and the closure of a suburban caterer is unlikely to have eaten food from the company, leaked documents show, raising fresh questions about the controversial closure of I Cook Foods.

I Cook Foods was closed in February 2019 after an elderly woman died in Knox Private Hospital — which the caterer supplied — with listeriosis suspected as contributing to her death.

Earlier this month, police reopened an investigation into the circumstances of the closure after owner Ian Cook accused Dandenong council inspectors of planting a slug in the caterer's kitchen as part of a conspiracy to shut I Cook Foods down.

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Blood samples from the woman showed a close match to listeria detected at I Cook Foods' Dandenong base, which the department said were not detected anywhere else in the country.

Inspectors also found dozens of other health breaches, including an unclean kitchen at the site.

Victoria's Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS] ordered I Cook Foods to improve its food safety processes. The company was able to reopen a month after the closure order but has never recovered.

Mr Cook has always maintained his innocence, claiming he was the victim of a stitch-up given the Dandenong council was a stakeholder in rival caterer Community Chef. Council chief executive John Bennie was a director of Community Chef.

Professor Sutton was the authority to ultimately sign the closure order for the caterer because of the council's conflict of interest.

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At the time of closure, Professor Sutton warned thousands of people could have been at risk from listeria.

Woman on 'soft diet sandwiches without crusts'

But the link between I Cook Foods and the food the woman ate has now been brought into question, with a leaked 2019 report to DHHS stating she was unlikely to have eaten the caterer's meals because she was on a "soft diet".

The report, prepared by Knox City Council, was emailed to the DHHS officials within hours of the business being formally shut down.

It states the "soft diet sandwiches without crusts" were prepared in-house by the hospital from ingredients provided by other suppliers, not I Cook Foods.

A letter from the hospital's lawyers to I Cook Foods also says that it had "no evidence of what food products the patient ate" at the hospital.

Professor Sutton told a parliamentary inquiry last year the food at I Cook Foods, where listeria was detected, were sliced cucumber, sliced silverside, egg-and-lettuce sandwiches and corned beef and mustard sandwiches.

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"Interviews revealed that whilst in hospital, the patient only consumed food from the hospital, with all food provided by Knox Private Hospital's sole caterer, I Cook Foods,'' Professor Sutton told the inquiry.

"The patient's daughter indicated that her mother was fond of eating the sandwiches provided in hospital."

However, the leaked report states there were actually six other suppliers to the hospital.

The ABC is not suggesting Mr Sutton had read the now-leaked document or was aware of its content prior to giving evidence at the inquiry. The Knox council inspection was requested by the department.

A Department of Health spokesperson said, "public health decisions were based on a careful analysis of environmental samples, food samples, laboratory results and in this instance, the intended recipients of the food being produced".

"The Department makes no apology for putting the health and safety of the community first, especially when it comes to public health,'' the spokesperson said.

"According to the distribution list provided by I Cook Foods, its customers included hospitals, meals on wheels programs, aged care facilities and food businesses supplying directly to the general public. It was important for the public to be alerted."

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The leaked document had been the target of Freedom of Information requests by Mr Cook but had yet to be formally released.

Mr Cook said he was stunned by the revelations in them.

"I have been fighting for this document for two years, and the DHHS is still pretending it does not exist,'' Mr Cook said.

Ultimately, 41 people lost their jobs as a result of the month-long closure of I Cook Foods in 2019, with the business unable to renew contracts with its main clients.

Mr Cook and I Cook Foods had at one point faced 96 charges, but they were dropped at the 11th hour before the matter was due to be heard in the magistrate's court.

"This government was willing to send me to jail, knowing I am innocent," Mr Cook said after this document was leaked.

Mr Cook is now suing the Dandenong council and Victorian government for tens of millions of dollars in damages.

Last year's parliamentary inquiry found the closure order for I Cook Foods was validly issued. However, it was scathing of the way Greater Dandenong Council — the authority charged with investigating the caterer — acted and communicated with the company.

The council has always maintained it acted appropriately and has denied it planted the slug in the kitchen.

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