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Tuesday 22nd May 2018

Is Cadbury world about to crumble?

30th June 2006

No self respecting chocaholic could have missed the news last week that Cadbury's had recalled 1 million bars of chocolate as a precaution following the discovery that a leaking pipe at one of its factories was contaminated with salmonella.

This was particularly pertinent to me for a number of reasons: one, I'm a chocaholic; two, at the time the news broke I was driving away from University Hospital Birmingham which is right next door to Cadbury's Bournville factory where the recalled bars would have been manufactured; three, I know this because I used to be a manufacturing manager at Cadbury's (a long time ago!).

Aside from the criminal waste that recalling and presumably destroying 1 million chocolate bars would entail - and the psychological stress that chocaholics would consequently suffer (at great cost to the NHS), my first thought was that this was one of those stories that could be blown out of proportion and tragically destroy a much-loved traditional brand. Remember Perrier? Did the fizzy water ever really recover? Remember Dasani? Never even got off the ground. Not to mention British beef - and our home grown eggs blighted for months by a slip from Edwina Currie.

Being somewhat of an armchair expert in all things chocolate, the scenario described was intriguing. For example, just how do you identify the exact bars that should be withdrawn "as a precaution", especially when you know something about the process?

When you get into the heart of the Bournville factory, you discover a whole world of technological wonders that actually makes the Willy Wonka concept of a factory redundant. Quite simply, making chocolate is itself a wonderland where art meets science. I am constantly asked just how do they get the yolk into Creme Eggs or how they made the bubbles in Wispa bars so small. The answer to both questions is that they apply science very cleverly; the method for getting the creme in a Creme Egg lends itself to Archimedes but that's as far as I'll be drawn on the subject (you can email me if you want to know more).

A bit of clever science is also employed at Cadbury's Marlbrook factory where the leak took place. Have you ever wondered how milk can have a shelf life of a day at room temperature while milk chocolate can survive in a shop for a year. What has happened to the milk that allows this? The Cadbury empire is founded on a very clever discovery made decades ago. In the Marlbrook factory, cocoa mass and milk are combined into something called "crumb" which looks like moon rock or, if you haven't been exposed to moon rock, like the inside of a Crunchie bar only chocolate flavoured. This "crumb" is then sent out to all the factories where it is made into chocolate bars of every description. Why make crumb? Because it is the ideal way to store fresh milk destined for chocolate so it doesn't go off.

I'm no expert on bacterial contamination but it does amaze me that any living organism could survive the processes involved in making a chocolate bar - but apparently it's the fat content that allows the salmonella to pull through. Of course, the salmonella found at Marlbrook was no ordinary strain but a special Montevideo version - whatever that means. The emphasis on the exotic name was probably designed to scare us.

As presumably was the number of bars recalled, giving the impression that this was a major food contamination alert. To any one individual, one million bars is an unimaginable number that one could not consume in a lifetime (though I'm willing to try). In weight we are reliably informed it is the equivalent of 55 elephants.

To Cadbury's, though, it is probably significant but not huge, such is the scale of their operation. When I was the production manager of Creme Eggs, more than a million of the things passed my office window every 24 hours. If this was Creme Eggs we were talking about, it would be one day's production.

Reading between the lines, this event happened back in January, was probably picked up and dealt with very quickly, put under question a single batch of "crumb" and involved a day or so's production at Bournville. Furthermore, I have no doubts about Cadbury's integrity when it comes to quality control. As a production manager at Bournville, the Quality Assurance team were gods and we cowered every time they came onto the manufacturing plant. Nothing slipped passed them and they would condemn a whole batch of output for displaying the slightest drop in standards. Although this was some time ago, I can't imagine that anything has changed since so for now I'm minded to trust the company.

So would I eat the bars? Well there's an interesting question.

The BBC news website occasionally invites comments on news stories and the Cadbury scare somehow met whatever criteria they use. And guess what? The responses were all from people who had been the victim of Montevideo salmonella poisoning in 2006. In fact, everyone who had a stomach upset and had eaten some Cadbury's chocolate suddenly had an explanation; we were in the middle of an epidemic. Of course, none of these victims of salmonella had retained a square of chocolate for testing; that's not how eating chocolate works.

You can prove anything with coincidence and amateur statistics but such is the ubiquity of Cadbury's chocolate that the stats would not normally be that relevant. I myself have eaten several of the offending bars since January without any adverse reaction except the desire to eat more.

If this seems terribly one-sided then this simply reflects my initial reaction. But I do have to counter this with the opposing view because, while Cadbury's chocolate is commonplace, the Montevideo strain of salmonella apparently isn't and there has been a significant rise in cases in the last few months. Is this because it's actually happening, because we're looking for it, because we're recording better this year than last or because we're better at diagnosing? Who knows? This week, three people were admitted to hospital with Montevideo salmonella but I don't know if this is abnormal or not? All I know is that it has been widely reported when previously it wouldn't have been. So far there has been no link found to the recalled chocolate bars but perhaps it's too late; the seed of doubt has been sown.

And finally, this brings me on to the MMR debate because in many ways it is similar. There is - we are told - little scientific evidence to support a link between the triple vaccine and autism. But if you are the parent of an autistic child - looking for an explanation - then MMR provides the perfect scapegoat. Like Cadbury's chocolate, it is ubiquitous and almost everyone can find a credible link to identify it as the obvious cause.

In the courts this is known as circumstantial evidence but when it comes to our health, we don't care. We're not taking any chances, even if we give ourselves a coronary watching the destruction of 250 tons of our favourite cocoa-enhanced nectar...

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