Ian Thomas Associates

KFC and Salmonella contamination

Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Salmonella-contaminated Twister wrap – this could happen in any food business

In April 2012 the Supreme Court of New South Wales in Australia concluded a long-running food poisoning case when it found that KFC had supplied a Twister wrap contaminated with Salmonella.

The case was brought on behalf of a young girl called Monika Samaan who suffered severe brain damage and is now confined to a wheelchair as a result of contracting Salmonella Encephalopathy in 2005. The court awarded damages of AUS $8 million.

Whilst the legal and evidential issues in the case were quite complex, the main issues raised by the case are relevant to all food businesses.

The case was hotly contested by KFC and the key issues for the judge to determine were:

  1. Was a KFC Twister purchased from the particular KFC premises?

  2. If so was it contaminated with Samonella?; and

  3. If so was it consumed by each of the family members who became ill within the incubation period for Salmonellosis?

In finding that the Twister was purchased from the particular KFC store the judge relied heavily on the oral evidence of Monika’s father who purchased the food.

Deciding that it was the Twister that caused the illness to Monika and her family the judge carefully reviewed the family’s food history during the incubation period for Salmonellosis. Although getting an accurate and complete food history was not an easy task, the court decided that the only food item common to each family member who became ill was the Twister.

Reaching the determination that the Twister, which has chicken as its main ingredient, had been contaminated with Salmonella involved a detailed consideration of expert evidence and evidence about how the store was being operated at the material time. KFC adduced evidence of its food safety management system which, when followed, the judge accepted “renders impossible the survival of Salmonella cells”.

The evidence showed that the chicken used in the Twister was cooked properly; it was not pink and the cooking time was automated. The court found that contamination must have occurred after cooking;

  • By contact with flour or other dipping material used previously in the raw chicken; or

  • By handling either manually or with cooking utensils.

Once Salmonella had been introduced onto the cooked chicken (probably on a clump of foreign material) it was placed in a warmer tray at about 50 degrees Celsius which, the judge said created, “an optimum reproduction environment augmented by the effect of applying sauce and the delay between sale and consumption”.

The court heard evidence that in the months leading up to the sale of the Twister the KFC store had been operating poorly at what was described by a KFC auditor as being at “breakdown” level. Some of the items identified during the audit related to poor levels of hygiene and sub-standard practices. These were relevant to whether chicken could have been contaminated.

The court also heard evidence of the “skylarking” behaviour of the staff which included throwing food. There was also evidence that cooked chicken came into contact with flour and other dipping material used on raw chicken and when it fell on the floor it was not discarded.

On balance the judge found that it was the Twister wrap purchased from the KFC store that caused the illness to Monika and to other members of her family.

Points to note

Setting up a proper and effective food management system, implementing training and conducting regular supervision and audits should be the norm among food businesses.

Learning from previous audits is essential and where issues have been raised they must be remedied and high standards must be achieved and maintained.

Controlling the conduct of staff at every minute of the day creates serious challenges for food businesses. Nevertheless, as this case amply demonstrates, the conduct of staff can have very serious consequences for customers. Aside from the personal tragedy for the Samaan family, the case shows the impact for a business and its brand can have genuinely global implications.

Incidents of “skylarking” and other activities that could compromise food safety must be taken seriously and appropriate sanctions imposed to prevent recurrence.

When faced with an allegation of food poisoning it is crucial that proper investigations are undertaken and, where possible, documents are retained and key witnesses are identified and spoken to. Selecting suitably experienced advisers is important to prevent situations occurring and to protect the business if things do go wrong.

KFC has indicated that it will appeal so only time will tell whether the judgment will be upheld although irrespective of the final outcome, the lessons to be learned will remain valid.

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