Former Nestle Food Safety Chief Fights Back

Yasmine Motarjemi was an assistant vice president in charge of food safety at Nestle, the world’s largest food company. She worked in that position from 2000 to 2010 at Nestle’s global headquarters in Vevey, Switzerland.

In 2006, things started to take a bad turn.

Her superiors weren’t taking her warnings of food safety issues seriously.

She complained to the head of operations.

She complained to the head of human resources.

She complained to the head of compliance.

She complained to the head of corporate governance.

She complained to the CEO.

All to no avail. They all refused to hear her.

In 2010, she was dismissed from the company.

Now, she is suing Nestle for harassment.

She is being represented by Bernard Katz, a lawyer based in Pully, Switzerland.

Nestle is being represented by Remy Wyler, a lawyer based in Lausanne, Switzerland.

(Nestle did not return e-mail requests to comment on this story.)

Since leaving Nestle, she has become a public health activist.

She is the editor of The Encyclopedia on Food Safety, which was published in January 2014.

What kind of problems did Motarjemi discover at Nestle?

“Lack of resources,” Motarjemi told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “The refusal of the company to recognize this. People were not able to do their work. Some of them were incompetent for the job or they did not have adequate training. There was conflict of interest in the auditing process. There was a culture of fear so that people would not speak up about the problems. They were afraid of saying the truth.”

She gives the example of the baby biscuits crisis.

“One example, which I reported to the court also and is easy to understand — it was the case of the baby biscuits in France. This case also led to retaliatory measures against me. And it was one of perhaps many reasons why the process of harassment started.”

“In 2002, I received two reports of babies suffering from choking. When I investigated the cases, I discovered that this problem was ongoing for at least two years. Nestle recognized this in the response to the court. And babies were choking with their products and they were leaving them on the market.”

What was wrong with the biscuit?

“There was something with the quality of the flour so that these biscuits were blocking the throats and parents were reporting that they had to put their fingers in the child to get the biscuits out. It was the quality of the flour,” Motarjemi says. “And when they changed the quality of the flour, the problem was fixed.”

“The worst thing was that they were labeling this product for babies from eight months old. Competitors were saying that baby biscuits were okay only for babies from one year and a half and older. The problem could have been fixed within 24 hours by changing the age.”

How many complaints did you see on choking?

“First, they told me these were just two sporadic cases, don’t worry. I said I wanted to see all of the cases. That was in 2003. I said — give me the total number of cases during the last year. And then I got to see 40 cases. And then I asked to see the cases in the other markets. And they told me that the other markets had a maximum of five cases. I said — that was unacceptable.”

“I wrote a complaint to the upper management and I denounced this. And then they intervened and finally they fixed the problem.”

From the time you raised the issue to the time they fixed the problem, how long was that?

“It was one month. But I wrote very severe and threatening notes. Some food safety problems don’t manifest in acute problems. They might be longer term problems. Here’s another example.”

“I came in and I saw there was not a process for validation of nutrient contents of infant formula. Validation process means — checking to make sure the calculation of the amount of vitamins, minerals or other nutrients added to the formula are correct. I had already received internal reports that we were adding too much vitamin A and D in our products.”

Why were they doing it?

“They were just negligent,” she says.

It was a mistake?

“They were just negligent,” she says. “They didn’t have a procedure. They didn’t take it seriously. They didn’t understand the seriousness of the issue. It was a negligent attitude.”

“I kept saying this is wrong and you have to improve validation. And they refused to listen to me. I had to write a strong note and take this note personally to the head of the business to make sure he doesn’t deny that he received the note. And still they didn’t do anything.”

Why didn’t you just send an e-mail?

“E-mail has a lower status than a note,” she says. “A note has a much higher status.”

But they couldn’t deny they received an e-mail.

“I followed up orally. And then after six months, when I saw that nothing was happening, I sent an e-mail and I asked — why is nothing happening? Again nothing happened. And nothing happened.”

“Until there is an incident, Nestle doesn’t move,” she says.

“Until a company called Humana had a major incident in Israel and 16 babies suffered from lack of vitamin B1 and three babies died. When this incident happened, suddenly they woke up and they realized that they had been negligent in the area of vitamin and nutrient content. It was something I had been warning about before the Humana incident. And then they came and told me that if the management asked you if this can happen to Nestle, you have to answer — no.”

“And then in spite of all of this, in 2005, their products in China had an excess of iodine. And then Nestle didn’t even care to reply to the authorities. After five days, when the authorities didn’t receive a reply from Nestle, they got so mad that they demanded a massive recall of Nestle products. And Nestle was caught up in a major scandal in China. And they lost market share.”

“It was this attitude of negligence that was frustrating me.”

Nestle did not return calls seeking comment.

But Motarjemi says that Nestle says “they will not discuss the details because the legal procedure is ongoing.”

“They deny harassment,” she says. “They say the food safety management is perfect. It is true that on paper the food safety management is perfect. But the issue is the implementation — and what you do when a person is reporting that there are problems.”

“Nestle says that they care so much about food safety they fired me. They were saying that I was the cause of the incident. The certificate, which shows why my contract was terminated, indicates that this was because I had a vision different from my boss and I refused a transfer they were proposing to me.”

“When I reported all of this to the higher level within the company during these four years, I never received a reply. I don’t know how they saw me. I never received an answer of any kind while I was there, except that they wanted to push me into a side job.”

What was the nature of the harassment?

“Isolation,” she says. “Humiliation. Preventing me from doing my job by discrediting me. Transferring my tasks to subordinates, some of them who were not competent for the work. Sometimes they asked me to do impossible jobs. The humiliation was perhaps the worst.”

“Just to give you one example. And there were many, everyday almost. But there were two prominent examples. We would have global conferences where they invited the heads of food safety from all over the world. At one of these conferences, they asked someone else to make the presentation for me — to make my presentation. They gave me a seat at the back of the room. And I’m the head of food safety and I should have been sitting in the front row. I had no opportunity to speak and to present my own work.”

“Then the CEO asked to come to our department have a meeting to understand why we had not been able to prevent the melamine incident in China. My boss did not invite me to that meeting. And finally, because I found out about the meeting, I was invited. I was the person in charge of food safety for the company and melamine was a food safety issue. But at the meeting, they presented me among the secretaries. He put my name under the secretaries.”

Your boss said you are a secretary?

“He didn’t say I was a secretary. But he put my name under the list of secretaries. And he doesn’t give me the floor to speak, while everybody else got the floor to speak.”

Motarjemi says there have only been three press reports about her case — Swiss TV, Le Monde, and a Swiss German business article. And a web documentary.

Why is there so little coverage of your case?

“I’m hoping you can explain that to me,” she says. “I don’t understand that. I don’t understand the silence of the society. I wrote to politicians. I wrote to parliamentarians. I have written letters to everyone. I just do not understand the silence.”

“I wrote also to the New York Times. They asked for my file. But then, they stopped answering me.”

What about her colleagues in the food safety field?

“I had a big international network of colleagues. And all I got was silence.”

Why silence?

“I do not know,” she says.

They don’t want to lose their jobs, right?

“I don’t have the facts. I don’t want to say anything where I don’t have the facts. I do suspect that they are afraid. They are afraid of losing their jobs.”

What about food safety people independent of the big corporations and the industry — people at the international bodies like the World Health Organization?

“Silence. Silence.”

[For the complete q/a transcript of the Interview with Yasmine Motarjemi, see page 28 Corporate Crime Reporter 40(12), October 20, 2014, print edition only.]

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