The government recently wrote to Ultimex Holdings about the bitter taste and cake texture of its Malutu and Tsabana products after beneficiaries and other stakeholders complained, The Business Weekly & Review has established.
But leaked documents suggest that before it received complaints from stakeholders about these products, the government had long been warned that this was a disaster waiting to happen.
While the government seems to have concluded that Ultimex is to blame, the documents show that the government failed for more than a year to act on recommendations by the company that could have prevented the supplementary food from becoming unfit for human consumption.
This is gleaned from a letter dated 21May 2021 from the Managing Director of Ultimex Terrence Peloewetse to the Director of the Department of Local Government Finance and Procurement Services, Olebogeng Moipisi. In the letter Peloewetse raises a concern that “any failure in the delivery chain might be unfairly perceived to be associated with us as the contracted party”.
At the time the letter was written, stakeholders in Botswana’s South East Region, including clinics, had not had supplies of Malutu and Tsabana for more than a month. “All your depots had refused us to deliver any more stocks claiming that we have overstocked them,” Peloewetse wrote to Moipisi.
“We are concerned and indeed worried if this might have been the same basis why other depots were not receiving stocks from us in the past. We are further concerned that if this problem of hoarding stocks by some depots continues, we are likely to be disrupted again in the future, making it impossible for us to perform the contract.” That was nearly a year ago. In the latest war of words between Ultimex and the government, Peloewetse tells Moipisi: “You will recall that sometime during May of last year, we wrote to the department with such concern, noting that we had become aware that our products were not being distributed to the beneficiaries on time and that depots were stopping us from delivering stock due to lack of space.”
He does this in a letter dated 22 February 2022 in which he also notes: “We later heard from some of the beneficiaries that they were being offered products which were left with only few days to expire. We have not had any form of response to this letter.”
Moipisi had written to Peloewetse on 20 January 2022. “We are in receipt of several complaints and enquiries regarding tsabana/malutu which we distributed to beneficiaries. These tsabana/malutu (products) are said to have a bitter taste.”
Moipisi added that preliminary tests conducted by the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MoHW) on the food had turned up “failure on moisture content and also failure on coliform count content”. He told Peloewetse that “a team from MoHW and from our department will visit the plant and conduct some inspection on the production process on Tuesday the 25th January at 09:00hrs”. The team would also discuss the need to conduct further analysis by an institution to be agreed by both parties.
In response, Peloewetse reminded both the Ministry of Health and Wellness and the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development that a material term of the contracts for manufacture and supply of both Tsabana and Malutu is that the products are not accepted by the government without having passed routine tests carried out on each batch within 10 days of receiving the products to determine whether or not the products meet contractual specifications.
If the products do not meet the contractual specifications, they are rejected and a process of dispute resolution commences, unless the contractor agrees to replace the products. “Therefore, acceptance of these products by government and subsequent distribution of these to depots and further distribution of same to beneficiaries means that these products have been certified by the government to have met the specifications,” he said.
Peloewetse argues that if it is true that certain of “our products, have been subsequent to passing testing for contractual specifications upon delivery, developed a bitter taste and caking texture, then the source of such subsequent deterioration in quality cannot possibly arise from our manufacturing process but from post-delivery and post-testing factors”.
He pointed out that once the products are determined to have met contractual specifications, any risk in such products passes to the government because thereafter only the government is responsible for the security, safe storage and/or preservation and distribution of the products.”
He continued: “Therefore, the solution to the complaint can only arise from the government’s treatment and or handling of products post-delivery and acceptance,” adding that his company has since conducted tests on all delivered batches of Tsabana and Malutu with an accented laboratory and that the results show the products as meeting the contractual specifications. “We therefore have not detected anomalies in our production process,” he said.
Peloewetse that noted that Ultimex keeps batch samples appropriate storage for four months so that it does not accept responsibility for any post-delivery damage that has to do with the shelf life of the products. However, “we may be able to participate meaningfully in dispute resolution testing by independent accented laboratories”, he wrote to Moipisi.
He then asked to be allowed to take samples of the returned products for independent testing by non-governmental but accented laboratories alongside the rained samples but warned: “This is not to accept any responsibility for whatever might have been introduced to the products post-delivery, but to investigate whether the products could have been tempered with by introduction of extraneous material post-delivery, whether storage facilities could be the cause of whether there is any bacterial or scientific explanation for the allegations.”
The Ministry of Health and Wellness recently issued a press statement warning members of the public “not to consume certain Tsabana and Malutu products which are reported to have a bitter taste and lumpy (caking) texture”. The statement the ministry cited consumer complaints, saying “caregivers alleged bitter taste and caking texture” and called on the manufacturer “to take appropriate measures to address the concern”.
Peloewetse said all of their products are hermitically sealed by an automatic packing machine in order nothing can go in or out of the pack and advised the government to “please focus your investigations on the anomalies in the supply chain post-delivery by us – this must be the source of the problem”.
He has asked to be furnished with a list of the complainants or contact persons if the complainants are institutional stakeholders. He has noted the failure of the local government ministries to “inspect our manufacturing plant on 25th January at 0900hrs” after expressing a desire to do so”.
Meanwhile, there are fears that malnutrition of children across Botswana could worsen if the issue is protracted further. Clinics countrywide have been complaining of being supplied with spoilt Tsabana and Malutu products that have not reached their dates of expiry. The products are given to children aged between 6 and 59 months.