Dirty Supermarkets
Reporter: Bryan Seymour

13 dead, 118 hospitalised, 3,500 sick just in the first three months of this year. That's thanks to 245 outbreaks of intestinal illness that we know of.

"Well I would expect better from companies that have a big reputation to keep... I think it's against the marketing strategies of firms that are talking about having high quality food and fresh... To be having premises that are not up to scratch" says Minister Ian MacDonald.

Through Freedom of Information laws, we secured food hygiene audits done in Sydney, in the three years to 2008. On the big supermarkets, particularly the areas where they prepare and display fresh produce.

All around Australia, it's our local councils who police the major food sellers or at least, they try to, against a raft of serious illness, outlined by Dr Jeremy Mcanulty, at the New South Wales Department of Health.

"salmonella, campylobactor... toxins that bacteria produce that you then consume and make you sick... and the symptoms tend to be things like diahorrea, vomiting, sometimes fever, aches and pains."

The worst offender - Coles. Among 55 breaches. Rats, and rat droppings. Flies and cockroaches, food well past it's use by date. While frozen food was thawed, then re-frozen. No soap in the hand basins... That may've contributed to all the dirty surfaces where food was prepared. The microwave was also dirty. While in the dairy cabinet - mould. Food was stored at unsafe temperatures and the toilet was dirty.

Next Woolworths with 25 violations. The fresh food people, also stored food at unsafe temperatures. Left floors and walls dirty not helped by the oil spills. Also no soap in the hand basins and broken refrigerator seals.

Both Coles and Woolies told us these indiscretions were one-offs, long fixed. Yet, incredibly, even after we'd told them about this story and identified the supermarkets, we walk in and find fruit, rotten with mould.

IGA, the independent grocers, came up best, with 8 infringements - again selling food past it's use-by. Staff handling food with their bare hands and there were holes in the ceiling.

Ian MacDonald is responsible for the New South Wales Food Authority, as Minister for Primary Industries. He was unimpressed when told that Woolworths were gloating over the fact that rival Coles came out worse in these food audits.

"Well I don't think the kettle calling the pot black is the way to go, they should be both ensuring that their standards are up to the food safety laws of this state."

The Minister's concern heightened by the fact that Coles and Woolworths control up to 80%of the grocery market. We're all prisoner to their safety standards.

Coles and Woolworths have had a week to work out their response, and do an interview with Today Tonight. Instead, we received these statements saying they take safety and hygiene very seriously. Coles also said the city of Sydney thought these breaches were minor. We checked, the council totally rejects that, these are serious breaches. Otherwise, both supermarket chains they ignored our questions on which of their stores nationally have the worst hygiene record.

The city of Sydney conducts 5000 inspections a year, making it one of the toughest in the land... So where does that leave your local supermarket?

That's partly your responsibility, says Juliana Madden from the Food Safety Information Council. "Any consumer should be aware and active, so if they see things that aren't right, you know, report it to the local government."

"It's incredibly important because it can be so insidious... Most people think it's just a day or two in bed at the very most. You can end up in hospital, people die from it" says Juliana.

The big supermarkets are appealing against another Freedom of Information application granted in our favour on Friday. That gives them the chance to tie it up for months, leaving you, to just take your chances.

"Consumers are worried about these issues, they wanna know which businesses are doing the wrong thing" adds Ian.

Offenders are now named and shamed on the NSW Food Authority's website. Other states are set to follow.

"You know you're part of this you're doing this, Coles and Woolworths will be watching and making sure that all their processes are the correct ones and carried out" adds Juliana.

Coles Statement:

"Coles takes all food safety and hygiene matters very seriously. We have a policy of full co-operation with any relevant authority and view any visit or suggestion by a food safety inspector as an opportunity to improve our business.

The issues that have been raised were considered minor by the Sydney City Council and Coles quickly addressed them. Food safety and hygiene are important considerations for both our customers and ourselves and we stress that none of the premises posed an immediate risk to public health.

Coles now has different owners and management who have been working hard to address underinvestment in facilities as one of a number of concerns with the way in which the business had previously operated.

Coles will continue to raise the bar on food safety and we have stringent processes in place, supported by internal and external assurance teams.

In recent months since our change in ownership we have been encouraged by our customers' response to our efforts to improve product quality and customer value and service."

Jim Cooper

Media Relations Manager | Coles Public Affairs

Woolworths Statement:

"We have strict policies for food handling and hygiene. If any breaches are found, they are swiftly corrected.

We take food safety extremely seriously and have very strict food safety standards across all our stores. We also undertake checks multiple times a day in all our stores and our staff are trained in food safety practices.

Luke Schepen, Media Relations Manager, Corporate and Public Affairs, Woolworths Limited

Information on Listeria Outbreak at Coles:

Coles supermarkets have recalled a sliced-chicken product sold in four states after the discovery of Listeria bacteria. The chain said the recall affected the "You'll love Coles sliced-chicken breast" 2 x 50g packs with a best before date of October 7.

It was sold in Coles, BI-LO and Pick 'n Pay stores in NSW, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland and through Coles Online.

The company said no other products were affected.

"The products are being recalled due to the presence of Listeria monocytogenes bacteria found in a routine product testing," Coles said in its recall notice. This is a precautionary recall and no cases of ill health have been reported."

Coles said Listeria could cause illness in pregnant women, the very young and in the elderly with low immune systems.

It said customers should return the product to a Coles, BI-LO or Pick 'n Pay store for a refund.

NSW Food Authority
Website: www.foodauthority.nsw.gov.au