Rats! How the Countdown rodent scandal unfolded

Countdown Dunedin South is closed until a rat issue within the store is resolved. PHOTO: GREGOR...
Countdown Dunedin South is closed until a rat issue within the store is resolved. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
Rats! Countdown Dunedin South has closed its doors for days on end as pest controllers work to eliminate rodents from the once bustling supermarket. Hamish MacLean and Matthew Littlewood look into how a rodent tripped up a supermarket giant.

It sounded like a dirty little secret.

The stories staff members at a busy Dunedin supermarket were telling were hard to believe.

Wheels of cheese were being eaten.

Rats had chewed through the wiring of a forklift and a freezer.

Containers of ingredients used to make pizza bases, and ciabatta, had been compromised.

There were rats in the aisles.

"It’s really bad," one staff member said.

A Countdown Dunedin South staff member, who declined to be named, said several workers including one of the management had been "petrified" by the rats.

"I know of at least one staffer who just did not want to come to work because of the rats," they said.

"These aren’t butterflies infesting the store, these are filthy vermin."

Still, it was easier for the management at Countdown Dunedin South to turn a blind eye, to dismiss concerns, they said.

The steps required to fix the problem were "too disruptive" to operations, they say they were told.

Frustratingly, those who were making noise about the issue were being ignored.

Staff had been complaining about the store’s rat problem since October.

It was late January before anyone called the Otago Daily Times.

And the rat problem had grown from one or two rodents to an "infestation", staff say.

Those staff who raised the alarm may now feel vindicated.

Rats in the aisles of the store made headlines and soon the store was under the spotlight.

On February 9, Woolworths New Zealand director of stores Jason Stockill said although the store believed it had addressed its problem, four rats had been caught inside in recent days.

"So it is clear we have more work to do."

Today, the Countdown supermarket at 323 Andersons Bay Rd, in South Dunedin, is closed and under investigation.

After a rat was caught at the weekend, a Woolworths spokeswoman says the earliest the store can reopen is Thursday.

If it reopens then, the store will have been closed for 12 days of trading.

The Ministry for Primary Industries is investigating and looking to identify the cause of the problem so that it can be properly dealt with.

The capture of more than 20 rats has been acknowledged.

When they are eluding traps, they are caught on camera.

And now the net has been cast wider — pest management at all Woolworths New Zealand stores is under investigation after a mouse was captured on camera scurrying about a potato salad in a Christchurch Countdown deli.

Busy summer for rats

DM Holdings pest controller Seth McPhee, of Dunedin, said he could not comment specifically on the situation at Countdown, but the rodent issues he had seen in Dunedin over the past few months were unusual.

Usually winter was a pest controller’s busiest time, when rodents sought warmth inside.

However, across the city there were several factors making it a "busier than usual" summer for rats.

"I think it’s a combination of factors: last season was a good breeding period for rodents which meant many survived the winter, and we’ve seen more high-profile rodent issues that have come to light."

Rodents were notoriously hard to get rid of and came inside for warmth and food.

They were deceptively small and could fit through gaps much smaller than their body width.

And so, it was very difficult to make any premises or commercial property rodent-proof, he said.

"It is damn hard to keep them out, so it is about a layered level of control."

This could include using methods such as traps, bait stations, blocking accessible holes, or "just making it difficult to get in there in the first place", he said.

Public health risk

University of Otago (Wellington) professor of public health Prof Michael Baker said rats and mice presented a real public health risk.

They could carry disease that could spread to humans through direct contact and through their faeces and urine.

Mice and rats could carry E. coli, salmonellosis, campylobacter or crypto, which was the most common way they could spread disease to humans.

"Their faeces can contaminate food with a wide range of bacteria and protozoa that can make us sick."

There had also been a few cases in New Zealand of rat-bite fever, which could cause fever, rash and septic arthritis, and the occasional case of flea-borne typhus.

Prof Baker said the history of rats as a spreader of bubonic plague meant they were feared more than other disease spreaders.

But birds and insects, such as flies, could also spread disease through coming into contact with food.

Rats were more visible, but other risks were more numerous.

And Prof Baker said shoppers should be concerned about the whole production chain "from source to sale".

Humans were a far more important source of infection in supermarkets than animals — this included staff coming to work when sick, he said.

And still, campylobacter, spread through raw chicken on the shelves of every supermarket, was far and away the biggest of New Zealand’s food-borne problems, putting 500 people in hospital every year, Prof Baker said.

"You could walk into a supermarket, you see a rat there, in relative terms, the rat compared with the chicken you are going to happily buy that’s wrapped up — that chicken is a much bigger problem than the rat."

This photo of a rat, and its reflection in a mirrored shelf partition, taken by a staff member at...
This photo of a rat, and its reflection in a mirrored shelf partition, taken by a staff member at Countdown Dunedin South in November last year, helped bring the issue to national attention. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Public relations nightmare

The public health issue at the store may yet be overshadowed by the public relations issue Woolworths has on its hands.

Otago Business School department of marketing senior lecturer Dr Damien Mather studies "effective corporate apologies".

And although the company has done a number of things right, in this case, Dr Mather is not yet sure he has seen one.

What the company had on its hands was an "evolving scandal", but poor apologies had the ability to create a "crisis" for a brand, he said.

It was important for an apology to be seen as sincere.

Woolworths could not be seen to give an excuse for what had happened — the company had to accept the problem as its own, he said.

"Another element is it has to have a true and honest account of what went wrong or what happened.

"How do you account for the fact that you’ve got rats or mice in your supermarket?"

On Friday, the company issued its most comprehensive apology to date — in it Mr Stockill said what had played out in the last couple of weeks was "not acceptable" to either the company or customers.

There were elements of an effective apology in his statement, Dr Mather said.

But there were also potentially "dangerous flaws".

The company had asked for understanding from the public, which was good.

It had largely taken responsibility.

Listing the actions the company was taking to eliminate future problems was good.

However, saying they were reminding teams of their practices and procedures, while true, was not helpful.

"It is dangerously close to admitting that some or all teams have forgotten what those practices were, indicating that they had taken their eye off the problem," Dr Mather said.

"Are you a wonderful all-encompassing brand I can trust forever, or are you just a bunch of guys?"

Further, an apology of this nature should have included some "recompense for the inconvenience and harm", Dr Mather said.

Although potentially costly, signalling the intent to win back customers had to be a part of the company’s message.

The company had apologised, which was good, "but nowhere does he say that they are sorry, or even better, ‘sincerely sorry"’.

"They have to be very careful to give an emotional, sincere, sorrowful expression without even a hint of transferring blame on to somebody else," Dr Mather said.

The apology issued by Woolworths contained some of the basics of a good apology, but contained too many flaws to be effective.

Still, as the scandal continued it might not be too late, Dr Mather said.

Where to from here?

Countdown Dunedin South will remain closed until both the Ministry for Primary Industries’ New Zealand Food Safety and Woolworths are satisfied newly imposed additional pest-control measures have worked.

New Zealand Food Safety deputy director-general Vincent Arbuckle said any decision around reopening would be guided by evidence the store was clear of rats and there were effective measures in place to ensure ongoing food safety.

"To that end we will continue to monitor the store after it reopens."

The store needed to have a rat-free day and then a 48-hour period following to show pest control efforts were managing the risk.

Effective rat control meant dealing with any evidence of rats at the store including nests and there were no reports last week of nests in the store or in the surrounding areas, Mr Arbuckle said.

"Whether or not the environment around the store is conducive to breeding rats is part of the investigation, which is seeking to identify the cause of the problem so that it can be properly dealt with.

"It is the responsibility of all food businesses to identify and plan for potential food safety risks.

"Ultimately, the actions required by the store to ensure the safety of its food are still a matter for the investigation."

He would not say exactly how long the investigation into the store would take, but instead said his staff would keep an open mind and follow the evidence.

"Investigations must be done thoroughly to ensure we understand the causes and scale of the problem so that it can be prevented from recurring."

Woolworths is not saying how much it is costing the business to keep its doors shut.

But it is saying it is paying staff as usual.

Woolworths New Zealand director of stores Jason Stockill said there were improvements for the company to make.

The company had issued a food safety alert to all of its teams "to remind them of our practices and procedures when dealing with pests".

"Our operations senior leadership team is visiting all stores to follow up in person.

"We are reviewing how we work with our pest control contractor, Rentokil, to ensure that any pest management challenges are being appropriately escalated and addressed, and that the right information is accessible."

It was also reviewing its "internal escalation processes" so staff felt confident raising and escalating concerns about pest management.

Asked about Countdown’s assurances late last week that staff would be listened to in the future, a staff member said "it’s too late now".

"It’s well and truly gone out the gate.

"They’ve got some hard roads to hoe before staff or customers feel they can trust them again."