Fish packing company M.V.Wool permitted to partly resume activities ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

M.V.Wool products at a supermarket in Estonia.
M.V.Wool products at a supermarket in Estonia. Source: ERR

Fish processing company M.V.Wool has been allowed to partly restart its operations, following an agreement with the Veterinary and Food Board (VTA), though not to actually recommence production. The decision is also an interim one.

M.V.Wool made a proposal at a court session on Monday whereby the VTA would allow it to continue buying packaged fish and selling it to stores, BNS reports.

The company also requested permission to continue pickled fish sales, particularly eel, as these products are heated and packaged, eliminating Listeria bacteria. The VTA agreed to this proposal.

M.V.Wool had been ordered to cease production in late November, leading to over 100 job losses.

M.V.Wool board chair Meelis Vetevool told daily Postimees after Tuesday's court session that progress had been made, but it was too early to celebrate as the company can't yet resume its core production activities, according to BNS.

The conditions for M.V.Wool's reseller activities and sale of pickled fish are likely to be establisheed on Tuesday, which may mean some of the 125 workers recently made redundant by the closure order my be re-hired.

Tallinn Administrative Court said on Monday that M.V.Wool and the VTA were trying to find a compromise solution in the ongoing court case, which they were obliged to inform the court about on January 8 2020, at the latest.

With the approval of both parties, samples would subsequently be taken from M.V.Wool's plants in Harku and Vihterpalu and sent to three laboratories --VTA's own lab, biotechnology company Icosagen, in Tartu and a national reference laboratory either in Latvia or Finland, in order to obtain an independent assessment by a third party.

Repeated previous samples by the VTA alone had revealed Listeria strains in both products and plants, particularly the virulent ST1247 strain thought to be behind the deaths of two people in Estonia and several more Europe-wide, and linked to M.V.Wool products.

Should the new samples prove negative, it is likely M.V.Wool will fully be able to resume production. If even one sample returns positive, however, both plants will remain closed.

Timeline of events

In spring this year Denmark's veterinary and food authority probed an outbreak of listeriosis that had started three years ago, linking them to M.V.Wool. In September it was reported in the media that 28 people had fallen ill with listeriosis in Estonia during 2018, along with the deaths mentioned.

Despite a full sterilization M.V.Wool carried out at its Harku plant in mid-October, a month later the VTA announced however that it found Listeria bacteria in new samples taken after the cleaning process.

On November 13 M.V.Wool submitted an action plan for eliminating Listeria from its facilities to the VTA, including a temporary halting of production for another sterilization at the beginning of 2020, but on November 25 the authority announced it was suspending the activity at the Harku and Vihterpalu factories with immediate effect, with not only production but also storage, import and export of raw materials, and reselling, until proven that strain ST1247 had been eliminated at the company's locations of activity.

The authority said that the company's activity to eliminate the ST1247 strain of Listeria bacteria, which has caused outbreaks of listeriosis, at the company has been insufficient.

M.V. Wool maintains its products have always met valid EU norms, ruling out any possibility of them having a harmful effect on people's health. After the reappearance of Listeria strains in the mid-November samples, Mati Vetewool said that imported raw materials from Finland was the source.

Two weeks ago, Tallinn Administrative Court partially granted a request for interim injunction by M.V.Wool, finding the request for a full suspension of the VTA ruling inadmissible.

The court granted the request of M.V Wool only related to its packaged raw products purchased from other parties, being stored in M.V.Wool's warehouse. 

The court said that in the situation in question, the need for protection of public health outweighs other arguments, especially considering that the applicant has not proven the absence of an obvious threat to public health.  

As regards the packaged raw materials in the warehouse, the court ruled to apply conditional legal protection, which means that it is possible for M.V.Wool to remove the goods from the warehouse, provided that the goods are in their original packaging and no unpackaged products of M.V. Wool have been kept in the same warehouse.

Transportation of the goods must take place under the VTA's supervision, and it must be possible for the authority to check the goods for safety. The purpose of these measures is to make sure that only products which have not moved from the raw materials warehouse/deep-freeze chamber to other premises of the company would exit the company's warehouse.

Part continuation of other M.V.Wool activity or the postponement of halting the activity was rejected.

The court said that the cross-cutting position of the VTA injunction is that there is threat to public health if the appellant continues activity in the locations of activity highlighted in the injunction.

As a result, the protection of public health outweighs the appellant's interest in pursuing economic activities the court finds, and the continuation of activity cannot be authorized even temporarily.

Similarly, the court does not believe that there is sufficient persuasion to rule out cross-contamination between the factories in relation to a range of activities.

The court emphasized that, in the application for interim injunction, the final outcome of the main proceedings, that is the proof of the facts and the lawfulness of the injunction is not decided conclusively. This is in other words only an interim decision which is valid until the end of the dispute.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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