A UK court yesterday fined Cadbury-Schweppes £1m (€1.5m) for knowingly allowing salmonella-contaminated chocolates to be sold to the public last year.
Cadbury's failure to follow EU-wide hygiene rules, known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) analysis, serves as a warning to other processors who may also have been tardy in making sure the system is in place at all their plants.
HACCP are a set of international procedures aimed at preventing food safety problems from occuring at manufacturing plants in the first place.
The confectionery and soft drinks group had previously pleaded guilty at Birmingham Magistrates Court to nine breaches of the UK's food hygiene laws, including a failure to have HACCP procedures in place at at its Marlbrook, Herefordshire plant.
The food safety breach has already cost the company about £50m to recall about 1m chocolate bars and on fixing problems at the Herefordshire plant, where the contamination originally occured.
The costs do not factor in the loss of customers and damage to the brand from the outbreak. About 40 people fell ill from eating the chocolates containing the crumb manufactured at the plant.
The charges against Cadbury were brought by Birmingham City Council and alleged that the company put "unsafe" chocolate on the market between January 19 and March 10 last year.
In a statement issued after the judgement, Cadbury said it accepted the decision and the fine.
"Quality has always been at the heart of our business, but the process we followed in the UK in this instance has been shown to be unacceptable," the company stated. "We have apologised for this and do so again today."
The company said it has spent about £20m in changing procedures to prevent such a problem from happening again. Since the recall, Cadbury has changed production and testing processes, stated the company.
"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," the company stated.
David Jukes, a senior lecturer in food regulation at the University of Reading, said the fine sent a signal to manufacturers that they must meet safety standards or face the consequences in court.
"I think the find reflects the increased seriousness that is given to food safety," he told FoodProductionDaily.com. "The decision sends a message that the law expects businesses to make their customers' safety a top priority."
The Birmingham court action targeted the company's failure to report to food regulators that its private testing in January last year had found a rare Salmonella strain in the chocolate products.
The products were on the market until June, when the Food Standards Agency revealed some people had fallen sick from the chocolates. Cadbury then withdrew the seven chocolate products from the UK market.
The Birmingham City Council charges accused Cadbury of being in contravention of the General Food Regulations 2004. The council alleged that, between January 19 and March 10 Cadbury "placed on the market ready-to-eat chocolate products which were unsafe, in that they were injurious to health and unfit for human consumption due to the presence of Salmonella organisms".
Another charge alleged that Cadbury "failed to immediately inform the competent authorities that they had reason to believe that ready-to-eat chocolate products, placed on the market, may be injurious to human health due to the presence of Salmonella organisms".
A third charge alleged that the company also "failed to identify hazards from ready-to-eat chocolate products contaminated with Salmonella and failed to identify critical control points and corrective actions in line with HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) principles".
The company originally traced the contamination source to a leaking waste water pipe at the company's plant in Marlbrook. The pipe had dripped bacteria into the chocolate crumb used to make a variety of chocolate bars.
The Health Protection Agency subsequently found a direct link between a salmonella outbreak affecting 37 people and the Cadbury chocolate.
The pipe was fixed but despite finding the Salmonella pathogen in some of its products, the company allegedly failed to make a recall at the time.
The Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF) released a damning report in July 2006 in which it stated that: "The presence of salmonella in ready-to-eat foods such as chocolate is unacceptable at any level."
The ACMSF also said that the company failed to correctly implement HACCP New EU hygiene directives came into force at the start of this year, embodying HACCP principles in the bloc's law.
"Cadbury's risk assessment does not address the risk of Salmonella in chocolate in a way which the ACMSF would regard as a modern approach to risk assessment," the ACMSF stated.
The findings of the report, published by the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA), concluded that Cadbury had used methods of product testing that were likely to underestimate the presence of the bacteria. A negative result from the tests would not necessarily mean that the product was uncontaminated.
"Based on the information provided, Cadbury appears to have used methods for product testing which the committee considered would underestimate the level and likelihood of salmonella contamination," the advisory committee stated in its report.
"Sample heterogeneity including clumping of bacteria will influence the MPN (most probable number) estimate and therefore the approach cannot be relied upon in foods such as chocolate."
HACCP is a science based and systematic method of identifying specific hazards and measures for their control to ensure the safety of food. Its basic principles rest on establishing control systems that focus on prevention rather than relying mainly on end-product testing.
Cadbury has since said it would improve cleaning processes at its Herefordshire factory.
Following a meeting with the FSA in July, Cadbury agreed to undertake 'remedial action', which would involve changing cleaning regimes in the plant and stepping up testing for a wider range of products.
In a statement, Cadbury Schweppes said it was "moving to a protocol in which any product evidencing contamination is destroyed."
According to the FSA, Cadbury has pledged to carry out a positive release system whereby products will only be released for consumption if they test negative for the salmonella bacteria.