The email at the centre of a defamation lawsuit between one of the owner of Molapo Crossing, Luc Vandecasteele, and the directors of Pick n Pay supermarket does more than describe “unhealthy conditions in the store.” On conducting an inspection of the store, Vandecasteele decided it would be a good idea to take pictures of what he deemed amiss. The first picture he attached in an email to Christopher Reed, the Pick n Pay franchisor and brand owner in South Africa, was a table with what appears to be a scuffed top. The picture is captioned “Preparing bread on rusty tables.”
Many more pictures and much more descriptive detail follow and some of it is certainly not lunch time reading. The second picture is also from the kitchen and is captioned, “Cooking in totally black pot, note the open dustbin in the take-away area.” Six days earlier, Vandecasteele had, in a different letter, complained about cooking pots that were “so black that a street vendor would refuse to cook in them.”
Then there is another bread-related picture captioned with information that the writer doesn’t seem totally sure of: “Baking bread in these greasy forms. Not cleaned since opening of supermarket?” A bakery cupboard picture is captioned with “Entirely rotten, without skirting and impossible to properly clean it.” From the part of the kitchen where cakes are baked is a picture captioned, “Look at the skirting and note that the glass top is missing above the cakes. It has been like that for more than a year.”
A rectangular stainless steel plate has been riveted to the floor in one part of the bakery. There is a picture of the plate with a pair of white steel-toe polyurethane boots atop it. One angle of the plate appears to be permanently raised as it peels off the floor and the picture is captioned with “Dirt collected under the stainless steel plate for years in the bakery. Not the slightest attempt to clean it.” Another picture that raises food safety concern is of two ovens that were reportedly installed when the store opened. The allegations made with regard to the latter are that the floor underneath “has never been cleaned since opening” and that while the dust and grease are “revolting … they are baking bread on top of it!”
At a meeting that he had with one of the Pick n Pay director, Christopher Linder early last year to discuss renovation plans, Vandecasteele suggested that the bakery “should be more open so that it stays clean and people can smell fresh bread.”
Supporting his statement with a picture attached, Vandecasteele alleges that the air filters in the kitchen “have never been washed since the opening of the supermarket 12 years ago”, that an air filter is “hanging loose above the cooking area” and draws attention to “the grease on the filter and the grill.” It was then that he expressed bafflement about health inspectors from the Gaborone City Council not taking corrective action. Apparently, Vandecasteele had, at one point, alerted the GCC inspectors about keeping goods on shelves past their sell-by date. His email says that “Local inspectors came and they issued instructions.”
On receiving this mail, Reed, the South African-based franchisor, wrote back: “Hi Luc, this is shocking. The minor maintenance that needs to be completed will be done immediately. I have asked the Africa GM for Botswana to go up to the stores and have a look himself. I will arrange to meet you and thereafter we can go through the larger issues.” Reed would indeed despatch Mark Barnard, the General Manager (Franchise) to conduct his own inspection and interview the franchisees. In response to the charge about selling goods past their sell-by date, Barnard wrote back: “The franchisees refute the fact that they alter sell-by dates. The store has a monthly independent audit which we will monitor, which checks for expired products. The franchisees undertake to ensure products are checked daily to ensure expired stock is removed from the store.”
The email also raises the issue of selling merchandise that is priced in South African rands instead of Botswana pula. In apparent reference to transport costs, Vandecasteele questions the rationale for factoring in such cost element when Gaborone is not too far away from South Africa.
“The distance from Gaborone to the PnP distribution centre is 375 km away, or closer than a lot of [South African] supermarkets, but they charge 20 percent extra! and score another 2 percent as they pay 12 percent tax rather than the [South African] 14 percent VAT. They are not even trying to conceal it. This is illegal as all merchandise must be priced in local currency and be VAT inclusive. This is not the first time I raise this point, but they have inadequate management in the store,” he wrote in his email to Reed.
The evidence Vandecasteele presented was in the form of two photographs of bread displayed with rand price labels. He mentioned a meeting where the issue was amicably resolved with the supermarket and added that the problematic practice resumed after some time. Following the controversial email, the solution came in the form of covering all rand price labels with ones quoting the price in pula.
Vandecasteele revisits this issue in an affidavit that he deposed to. In it he states that since the supermarket started operating, it has been displaying rand prices on goods sold in the store and charging customers in rands “without correctly converting to pula.” When the issue was raised during a 2015 arbitration between the two parties, one Pick n Pay director, Bruce Milne, is quoted in the affidavit as saying that the supermarket was “proud to expose the rand price” and sell products for less. Vandecasteele counters the latter assertion by stating that while the supermarket may have priced its goods in less pulas than rands, it “still sold the goods for about 30 percent more in pulas.”
Responding to this issue in his own email, Barnard wrote: “The franchisees undertake to cover the rand prices in the future. However, the products are always sold in pula.” Minutes of an August 24, 2015 meeting with officials of the Ministry of Trade and Industry (renamed Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry) quote the Director Consumer Affairs, who is only identified as Mrs. Bontsi, as saying that this practice is illegal.
Vandecasteele alleges that most of the issues raised in his email to Reed were resolved by way of a ‘frantic cleaning campaign’ that happened before Barnard’s arrival.
What would seem odd though is that ÔÇô at least from minutes of another one the meetings between Vandecasteele and the supermarket owners ÔÇô the bakery is described as Pick n Pay’s drawcard. During this particular meeting, it emerged that someone only described as “a Belgian patissier” (the latter is French for a maker of pastries and cakes), was at one point interested in opening a patisserie in the supermarket but the deal fell through. The minutes say that the supermarket “uses bakery to entice customers to shop there and has to offer bread at low prices.” At this time, renovations plans were at an advanced stage and one of the supermarket directors suggested a “revamped bakery” as part of such renovations.
From the frozen food section, there is a picture of a stack of French polonies in “Filthy fridges that are rusting and have all sorts of loose bits.” Another picture shows fridges whose panels “have been loose for more than a year.”
The loading yard is also said to have been neglected at the time that Vandecasteele did his inspection. In is words, “The yard was disgusting. Dead rats and a cat pest are the results thereof.” However, following his “last threat”, the yard was finally cleaned up. Another letter from Vandecasteele to the supermarket owners describes the yard as “a breeding place for vermin and is covered in overflowing sewerage. Cats are breeding and the yard is full of rubbish, creating a health hazard for your personnel and our customers.”