The lid is only starting to lift on ex-premier Andrews and his government. The Slug Gate scandal, still before the courts, is just one of many cases that points to something very wrong in the State of Victoria. It is a legacy that needs to be exposed and understood.
Startling allegations of corruption, misconduct and dubious practices within government agencies have been aired by a recent legal battle between I Cook Foods and the Victorian Department of Health. While the hearings were initially reported, they have since been largely ignored by the mainstream media.
The case itself of course derives from the controversial “slug gate” saga that first broke into the public domain in 2019, generating substantial public interest and a growing loss of trust in the Victorian Labor government. While the conduct of former Chief Health Office Brett Sutton and his associates have been the primary point of focus, the case once again raises the question of the integrity of the government.
I Cook Foods
I Cook Foods was first established by Ian and Dena Cook in Dandenong, Victoria in 1985. Over the years, this family owned food-manufacturer enjoyed great success and became renowned as the premier private provider of home-delivered meals in Victoria. Committed to supporting the local Dandenong community, I Cook Foods catered to a broad range of hospitals and senior care facilities, as well as services within the charity sector such as “Meals on Wheels.” With a workforce comprising a large number of local residents, including those with disabilities, I Cook Foods became a pillar of the wider Victorian community. Small wonder that the shuttering and dismantling of I Cook Foods, ordered by the State Government in February 2019, caused widespread concern.
Closure of I Cook Foods
On February 18, 2019, government health authorities informed the local council that food samples from I Cook Foods had returned positive for listeria, though the specific contamination levels were not known at the time. That same day, a government health inspector, Elizabeth Garlick, conducted an inspection at the I Cook Foods premises and purported to discover a live slug on the premises. The team at I Cook Foods have consistently maintained that the slug was planted on the premises by Garlick herself in a bid to shut down their business for good. These allegations were later supported by health department whistleblower, Kim Rogerson, who was Garlick’s former colleague. According to Rogerson, she directly witnessed Garlick editing the photograph of the slug in question, with a focus on erasing a piece of tissue from the original image:
“On one screen was a picture of the slug, a normal colored picture with a triangle of tissue about the size of your little fingernail or something. And on the other screen she had a red circle around this piece of tissue that was near the slug and I said, ‘What are you guys doing?’ and was told ‘Oh, we are just tidying it up.’ And I thought, no, you’re not. There was no tissue in that photograph.” (Source)
On 21 February 2019, I Cook Foods were presented with a closure order at the instruction of Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton, despite a lack of evidence linking the hospital’s listeria case to the consumption of an I Cook Foods meal and prior to laboratory testing of the listeria levels in I Cook Food samples being completed. It was this closure of I Cook Foods which set off a broader legal and political battle, ultimately implicating both the Greater Dandenong Council and Brett Sutton in an alleged conspiracy to benefit I Cook Food’s main competitor: council-owned catering enterprise, Community Chef.
Ten years previously, in 2009, the Victorian Health Minister, Daniel Andrews, and then Federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, had established a competing catering venture named Community Chef, bankrolled by government funds and contributions from local councils. Community Chef, despite receiving substantial financial backing, failed to generate profits, sparking concerns regarding the prudent use of public resources. By 2019, the competitive rivalry between I Cook Foods and Community Chef had led to financial woes for other local private catering enterprises, with one even going bankrupt.
Merely half an hour before Sutton closed I Cook Foods, he had a telephone conversation with the Chief Executive Officer of the City of Greater Dandenong, John Bennie. During their phone conversation, Bennie explained that he was unable to issue the closure order for I Cook Foods due to his role as board member for Community Chef, which presented an evident conflict of interest. Bennie stated that Sutton also mentioned his own conflict of interest with Community Chef, as the Department of Health and Human Services under his leadership had made significant investments in Community Chef. Despite these conflicts, Sutton proceeded to sign and authorise the closure order at approximately 10:00 pm on February 21, 2019.
The following morning, before issuing a public statement, John Bennie announced to the Community Chef board meeting that a closure order had been served on I Cook Foods. During this same meeting, the Community Chef Board made the decision to contact the Municipal Association of Victoria and request that the Association get in touch with all of I Cook’s customers to share the news with them. Further adding to the intrigue was the fact that this decision was made before any other manufacturer knew what had transpired in the twelve hours prior.
That same afternoon of February 22, the Victorian Health Department publicly, albeit falsely, named I Cook Foods as a potential source of a listeria outbreak. Dr Brett Sutton called a press conference to share this news, which was quickly picked up and shared by local and national news outlets.
I Cook Foods, as it had been known, was finished.
As evidence casting doubt on the legitimacy of the I Cook Foods closure continued to mount, I Cook Foods launched legal proceedings against the Department of Health and Human Services, alleging misfeasance in public office and seeking compensation to the amount of 50 million dollars in damages. Of particular note was the evidence that subsequent laboratory testing in fact confirmed that listeria found on six food samples in the I Cook Foods kitchen were within the ‘safe’ limits. According to the Australian New Zealand Food Standards, the safe level of listeria in ready-to-eat foods is less than 100 colony-forming units per gram. The official lab results for I Cook Foods’ ingredients showed counts of less than 10, landing well within the safe range.
At the trial’s outset, Ian Cook’s legal representative, Marcus Clarke KC, argued in the Supreme Court that Brett Sutton had overstepped his authority as Chief Health Officer by prematurely shutting down I Cook Foods with “reckless indifference” and subsequently causing Cook’s business significant financial setbacks. Clarke also argued that Sutton ultimately breached Mr Cook’s rights of natural justice to properly contest the allegations against his business. Sutton’s defence team asserted that his actions were both lawful and based on evidence, with the primary goal of safeguarding the community, and argued that Sutton’s intentions were free from malice.
During an extensive cross-examination spanning over five hours on August 14th and 15th, Brett Sutton vehemently denied any “recklessness” in his decision to order the closure of the commercial kitchen operated by I Cook Foods in Dandenong South. This action was taken as part of an investigation into the death of an 86-year-old patient at Knox Private Hospital, who had contracted a listeria infection.
The central argument put forth by Cook’s legal team was that Sutton should have waited for more conclusive laboratory results, which were expected to be received on February 22, 2019 and coincided with the morning the closure order was served to I Cook Foods. The court was presented with several emails from departmental officials recommending that Sutton wait for further laboratory analysis.
Clarke KC contended that Sutton was reckless not to wait for these laboratory results, to which Sutton responded with a firm “No.” Sutton mentioned that the results took an additional week to arrive. Sutton argued that listeria ‘enumeration’ levels were “not relevant” to his decision to issue the closure order, and he could not recall if he had later seen the subsequent lab results.
Sutton defended his actions by stating that a preliminary genetic match between the listeria infection in the patient and the I Cook Food’s food samples indicated to him that it was not necessary to wait. He emphasised that while results are not perfect, binary-type and serotype matching provided strong evidence of relatedness.
Sutton testified that on the day the closure order was made, he had participated in a department team meeting that discussed risk assessment, laboratory evidence, food history and other potential sources of infection, along with the state of the I Cook Foods’ kitchen. He mentioned that the affected patient’s food history strongly suggested consumption of I Cook Foods meals before the incubation period.
Justice Michael McDonald raised the point that it was surprising that 17,500 I Cook Foods sandwiches were delivered to Knox Private Hospital during the five-week investigation period and that no additional reported cases of listeria infection arose. Sutton responded that he was also surprised and suggested that there could be an escalation in the listeria risk over time.
Regarding the possibility that the patient didn’t contract listeriosis from I Cook Foods products, Sutton remained firm in his stance, stating that there is never absolute knowledge regarding food exposure in cases of food-borne illnesses. However, he asserted that the overwhelming weight of evidence pointed to I Cook Foods.
When presented with a transcript of his press conference on 22 February 2019, Sutton justified his actions by explaining that the I Cook Foods’ kitchen samples had not been directly linked to the patient at the time and were still under investigation. Clarke KC questioned the necessity of the press conference and publicly naming I Cook Foods, especially considering the fact that the Health Department had already sent out letters informing all of I Cook Food’s clients of the closure order. Sutton defended his decision, citing his concern for vulnerable individuals’ safety and the need for decisive action. He stated that he didn’t consider the situation an “emergency” but rather an “urgent decision” due to the perceived public risk.
While Sutton admitted that he was aware that I Cook Foods closure would result in a breach of its existing supply contracts, he denied any knowledge of I Cook Foods’ direct competitor, Community Chef, being funded by the Department of Health.
The debate also extended to the incubation period of listeria, with Sutton suggesting a shorter incubation period. This directly contradicted evidence from forensic pathologist Professor Johan Duflou’s evidence and Health Department materials, which both indicated a longer average incubation period of listeria of about three weeks. Professor Duflou had suggested that the patient may have contracted listeria before being admitted to the hospital.
Sutton concluded by stating that he wasn’t informed about the patient’s specific symptoms or cause of death and didn’t consider these factors relevant to his decision to close I Cook Foods. Sutton stated that he had made his decision based on a report from an individual he believed to be an “authorised officer,” which indicated that food preparations at the I Cook Foods premises had been transpiring in an “unsafe or unsuitable” environment. However, when queried further, Sutton admitted that he was not, in fact, certain that the person who prepared the report was indeed authorised. He stated, “I was very confident he was an authorised officer,” but conceded that he had not personally seen the individual’s authorised officer credentials, nor had he pursued additional inquiries to verify their status.
Sutton’s testimony, as stated by Clarke KC to the Supreme Court, ultimately cast him as an “unreliable witness” and Cook’s legal counsel further asserted that this ought to be taken into account by the Courts in their determinations.
In summary, I Cook Foods case features allegations of corruption, misconduct, and dubious practices within governmental agencies, all of which ultimately resulted in the dismantling of a prosperous family-owned enterprise. The Cook family remains resolute in their pursuit of justice, embarking on legal battles through both civil and potentially criminal channels to unmask those accountable for unlawful conduct. Arguably, this is best highlighted by the words of Ian Cook himself:
“This has cost me my life’s work, and it will most likely cost me everything I have ever owned. And yes, I do get upset about this. But then I have to remind myself, this whole matter is not just about my family, myself and my former employees anymore. This is about democracy and the kind of country we are willing to live in. Governments, and corrupt people in those Governments, can’t be allowed to destroy the lives of innocent people. We must all take a stand if we ever see this happening. I just can’t walk away.”