Nestle CEO Takes Stand in Harassment Suit Brought by Executive

  • Former food-safety director says company ignored lapses
  • Foodmaker denies charges made in lawsuit by Motarjemi

Nestle SA Chief Executive Officer Paul Bulcke took the witness stand Wednesday in a harassment lawsuit brought by a former employee who alleges the world’s largest foodmaker ignored her warnings about product safety.

Bulcke said he could not recall the specifics of a 2006 meeting that Yasmine Motarjemi, a former food safety director at Nestle, said was key to her complaints. The court hearing was limited to journalists and pre-approved members of the public at Nestle’s request. 

“There are a lot of meetings and I try to attend all those that merit it,” Bulcke told the judge who was questioning him at the court in Lausanne, Switzerland, less than 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the foodmaker’s headquarters. “Food safety is something we take very seriously.”

Motarjemi, who was hired as director of food safety for the Swiss company in 2000, alleges that she was subject to harassment from 2006 onward, after her repeated attempts to flag food safety lapses were ignored, before she was fired in 2010. The case is potentially embarrassing for the company, which has denied the charges of harassment and food security lapses, as the popularity of its brands hinge on consumers’ loyalty.

Nestle, which sells brands including Perrier water and Purina cat food, said earlier this year that a recall of its Maggi brand noodles in India hurt sales in Asia, which led to nine-month revenue missing analysts’ estimates. The Maggi recall followed a report by Indian regulators that they found unsafe amounts of lead levels in a noodle packet. Nestle, which had maintained its noodles were safe, filed a case in June, challenging the recall. The Bombay High Court later overturned the ban on Maggi noodles, and ordered tests that showed the noodles were safe.

Motarjemi, who joined Nestle from the World Health Organization, is seeking 2 million Swiss francs ($2 million) in compensation to cover her legal and medical costs, and 50 percent of 10 years of lost earnings, she said. She said she was subject to “psychological harassment” by her superiors for years.

In court, Bulcke rejected Motarjemi’s argument and pointed to the typical 25-year tenure of Nestle employees -- and his own 36 years at the company -- as evidence that people liked working there.

“I reject this notion that there is a culture of fear at Nestle,” Bulcke told the judge. “Above all, the respect of the person is what counts at Nestle.”

Bulcke wrapped up his testimony in about 40 minutes, and was followed by Jean-Marc Duvoisin, the former head of human resources and now chief of its Nespresso business. Duvoisin said he never witnessed any harassment of Motarjemi and that although there may been “irritations” between her and her boss, the relationship was professional.

“There was always an open and objective dialogue between Ms. Motarjemi and Mr. Stalder,” Duvoisin said, referring to Roland Stalder, Nestle’s director of food quality at the time.

Bulcke and Duvoisin were the first two of four senior executives giving testimony Wednesday in the trial which began in early December.

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