Complaint about seedpod found in frozen vegetables

2016-06-22 10:30
Lyse Comins

Lyse Comins (File)

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Pietermaritzburg - When Lucas Brits found what he believed to be a cocklebur seedpod in a pack of McCain’s frozen Mexican Stir Fry he contacted the company via its Facebook page to lodge a complaint.

Brits grew up on a farm, so was familiar with the weed and its seedpods that are a common pest on farms, and can be harmful to humans if consumed in large quantities. “I posted on McCain’s Facebook page and asked them if it is in fact a cocklebur seedpod as I may have been mistaken. They responded very quickly by asking for my contact details and batch number,” he said.

Brits said a “responsive and understanding” customer care consultant contacted him two days later to confirm that it was a cocklebur seedpod, which had somehow bypassed mechanisms used to remove them from crops.

“She informed me an average human would need to ingest about 100-120 g of the seeds before showing any worrying symptoms and the seedpod I found, they estimated, would only contain around 20 g,” he said.

Brits said she informed him the company would be sending a “package” and that management would investigate and provide feedback.

“Two weeks later, I received a letter stating what was previously said over the phone and a R120 voucher,” Brits said. “Upon receiving the vouchers and letter from McCain shortly afterwards I felt as if the matter was not taken as seriously as it should be seeing as this has occurred before, multiple times,” Brits said.

Brits sent me screen shots of a string of complaints posted on the company’s Facebook page, which were still on the site when he initially contacted me in April, where another two consumers had allegedly found seedpods in its frozen vegetables — three seedpods were found in a single pack of beans in one case. Other foreign objects allegedly found and photographed had included a piece of rubber and a piece of plastic.

“Even if the seeds are not as dangerous in small amounts it could still lead to injury as the spikes become rock hard when cooked and the effects of the seeds on a small child or toddler would be dangerous,” Brits said.

Brits said he posted a further complaint on McCain’s Facebook page stating “how ridiculous the voucher was in response to the incident” which attracted a lengthy reply.

In its response the company said the matter had been escalated to its agriculture director and that seeds found in its products were a “rare occurrence” and “unlikely to cause harm”. The company explained that optical sorting technology and manual inspections were conducted to check for foreign materials, and it invited Brits to meet with management for further explanation.

I asked McCain South Africa to respond to Brits’ complaint to me about the way it had initially handled his concerns. A spokesperson said the company had contacted the customer and provided detailed information about the cocklebur seed and the minimal risk posed as the seeds, which contain xanthium, only become toxic to humans weighing at least 70 kg if ingested in quantities of more than 210 g. “Our customer care team let us know that after that conversation the customer seemed happy with the response and at no point in time did the customer indicate that he was unsatisfied,” she said. “A few weeks later we had noticed that the customer had responded on the post on Facebook again and seemed angry about the voucher that was sent to them. We responded to the post, highlighting the research surrounding the cocklebur seed pod and addressing concerns about toxicity,” she said, adding the company had explained that the vouchers were not meant to detract from his complaint but intended to make up for the inconvenience and expense he had incurred.

“We care about our consumers and have been more than happy to provide further clarity or support to this consumer. Unfortunately we did not get the opportunity to do this,” she said.

“At McCain our products go from farm to fork, and, unfortunately because of this process in rare occurrences foreign plant material does pass through the net. We do have measures in place, as per global best practice, to avoid this, but in the instances where material does get through the net we do take full responsibility,” she said.

She said McCain’s Food Safety System was certified to FSSC 22000, a Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) approved scheme. She added that while there were no reported cases of cocklebur seed poisoning in South Africa, limited research suggested symptoms could include abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, drowsiness, palpitations, sweating and dyspnoea.

“This plant is a weed that is very common in South Africa and across the world. The weed competes with crop plants and indigenous species along riverbanks and on farms. Fresh product farmers have been fighting against these weeds for a number of years as they continue to grow among the crops,” she said.

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