'I don't want these out there' - An inside look at Talley’s attempts to shut down a 1 NEWS investigation

Source: 1News

Last month, 1 NEWS reporter Thomas Mead revealed serious safety concerns and ongoing injuries to staff at food manufacturing giant Talley’s. Now Thomas writes candidly about the company’s attempts to shut down his reporting and the influx of whistleblowers now coming forward.

Filthy conditions in Talley's Ashburton factory.

It only took a few minutes for Talley’s boss Tony Hazlett to issue a threat. 

“I don’t want these out there,” he said, looking at the photos sprawled all over the boardroom table. “We’re considering a challenge.”

I looked down at the image of a filthy machine, taken inside one of his factories, the silver metal exterior stained black with burnt grease.

It had been given to me by a whistleblower, one of the thousands of people working across Talley’s huge food manufacturing business, who claimed he’d seen unsafe and unsanitary practice at their vegetable factory in Ashburton.

But now Hazlett, one of the most powerful chief executives in New Zealand, was doing as much as he could to keep it quiet.

For the last half an hour, the CEO had been trying to convince me it was all a big misunderstanding.

I’d been ushered into a boardroom at the Ashburton site after requesting an interview, and soon found myself surrounded by a team of high-level managers, including Hazlett, two site managers, a safety boss and a company communications rep.

Hazlett had initially tried to talk us out of the story, assuring me the leaked photos showed a few moments that’d been taken out of context.

But soon, discussion moved to intimidation.

I knew Talley’s had shown a real appetite for legal action over the years, once taking a dispute around a paralysed worker all the way to the Supreme Court. Now, Hazlett was willing to bring the lawyers in here too.

“We own the copyright,” he said, in an attempt to dissuade us from publishing.

“You’re welcome to challenge,” I responded.

“Go for it.”

It was this kind of showdown that had prompted us to offer anonymity to the whistleblower in the first place.

We’d sat together a few weeks earlier, his face hidden in darkness to protect his identity, discussing what he saw as glaring risks on that production line at Talley’s Ashburton.

The anonymous worker wanted to speak out after a horrible injury on-site, where a woman’s hand was caught in a corn-cutting machine.

She’d been freed by emergency services, her screams heard across the factory.

“They put the production in front of the people, and it's supposed to be the other way around,” he’d told me.

“What they are doing, they don't even care, because these people are easily replaceable.”

Hazlett had denied any unsafe practice in the strongest terms possible.

Back in the boardroom, as our conversation came to a deadlock, he stood up suddenly and left with two advisers to “make a call”.

The legal letter landed in my inbox within minutes, Talley’s lawyer Peter Dawson prepared to head to the High Court.

“Dear Mr Mead,” he wrote.

“The photographs do not concern an issue of public importance or safety. […] My client seeks confirmation by TV ONE News by 2pm today that the misappropriated photographs will not be published or screened.”

“Failing such confirmation my client intends to seek immediate injunctive relief to prohibit TV News disclosing that material.”

We responded shortly afterwards, saying the photos were clearly in the public interest.

A few hours later, the story went to air on the 6pm news.

In the weeks since that extraordinary meeting, and the story which ran that evening, we have interviewed seven whistleblowers across three separate Talley’s factories in Ashburton, Blenheim and Nelson.

They have all made allegations of unsafe working conditions, universally condemning Talley’s management for what they see as a willful ignorance when it comes to health and safety.

All have asked to appear anonymously, their faces hidden, and voices changed, citing a fear of retribution.

It’s a fear that runs contrary to Talley’s public image as a national institution, a good Kiwi company that was built from the ground up.

The food manufacturer came from humble roots in Motueka nearly 100 years ago, founded by Ivan Peter Talijancich, who would later be known as Ivan Talley.

It has since grown to lofty heights, employing thousands of people across multiple different wings of the business, including its seafood and vegetable processing plants, a deep sea fishing arm known as Amaltal, the meat works AFFCO, ice cream brand Deep South and Open Country Dairy.

The behemoth remains in family control – operated by Andrew Talley, Milan Talley and Peter Talley – and while their financial records aren’t public, it’s clear the business makes significant amounts of money.

NBR put the Talley family at 7th on their 2021 Rich List of the wealthiest people in New Zealand, estimating their collective wealth to be $1.2 billion.

But their operations have been dogged by a long history of major injuries, including a man who was decapitated by a rope on a fishing boat in 2014.

Corn husking machine at Talley's Ashburton factory.

Our investigation shows Talley’s has also failed to protect people working for them in recent years, their work leaving behind an enormous human toll.

We have been able to publish the photos they wanted hidden, the legal threat nothing more than a bluff, their lawyers failing to file any action in the High Court.

We went to air with images of exposed ‘nip’ points on conveyer belts, where workers could be trapped, along with other safety concerns.

The company continues to strongly deny any unsafe or unsanitary practice, saying it has been improving its record for years, and any problems raised were already addressed as part of normal practice.

But the Government regulator WorkSafe responded almost immediately , placing Talley’s under a “top to bottom review” the day after our stories first aired, a wide-ranging intervention that includes its other companies like AFFCO and Open Country Dairy.

The watchdog soon confirmed Talley’s had a history of poor health and safety, even going as far as to add that “this may indicate there are systemic issues that need to be addressed in the boardroom”.

Repeated injuries had included 144 separate notifications from Talley’s Group between 2018 and 2021, including a workplace fatality, 34 “notifiable incidents” and 83 “notifiable injuries or illness”, the regulator told us.

As the story went public, our phone and email lines were suddenly inundated with current and former Talley’s staff members who wanted to speak out.

A routine quickly developed. The worker was happy to share information, but only under the condition of anonymity, worried the company would take action against them.

As we sat across from each other in dark rooms, taking extreme care to include nothing identifiable, they put the blame at management’s feet.

Over and over again, they claimed safety issues had been raised by staff but left ignored.

“Everyone can see it,” one told us.

“Everyone, managers, supervisors, everyone is there, they know it's there, they just walk away.”

Two former Talley’s forklift drivers, who worked at the Ashburton coolstore within the last 18 months, told us they were scared for their lives while they were on the job.

One shared photos of large bins of frozen food broken on the ground, after falling from several metres in the air.

“These issues, we raised time and time and time again,” they said.

“You can be working in there and you've got, suddenly, a stack of bins falling straight towards you.” 

Talley’s has denied any impropriety, but announced an independent investigation into that Ashburton factory, saying it is “obviously concerned at the complaints that have surfaced”.

The company has selected former police commissioner Mike Bush for the job, adding they believe their systems will “withstand scrutiny”.

But the story has extended beyond just Ashburton, with whistleblowers flooding in upcountry too. We have obtained leaked documents from inside Talley’s Marlborough operation, giving an idea of some of the risks workers face there.

They include a leaked internal spreadsheet, showing there were 174 injuries across Talley’s facilities in Blenheim, Havelock and Picton over a one-year period, between October 2019 and September 2020, or an average of one every two or three days.

Injuries included 10 incidents where people were caught between objects, three where they were caught in machinery, 12 listed as “chemical”, 35 “colliding with object” and 26 cuts with a knife.

Boxes of frozen food on the floor of a Talley's factory.

Two leaked health and safety audits conducted by an independent assessor at the Blenheim site indicate the real number could be higher still.

The first audit, carried out in February 2019, identified multiple critical issues that required action, the auditor noting "there is likely to be significant number of unreported incidents or near misses".

In a second report in July 2020, the auditor noticed a clear improvement, but graded "the health and safety of employees, contractors and subcontractors" at just 50 per cent, saying, yet again, "it appears that all incidents and near misses are not reported across site".

In response, Talley’s said they’d shown a clear improvement over the years, and provided a statement written by their auditor QMS.

The independent assessor, which had previously highlighted ongoing issues in Blenheim, wrote in defence of the food manufacturer, saying “it is clear there is a substantial commitment by the company to health, safety and wellbeing of their staff”.

However, two anonymous whistle blowers connected to the same site describe a very different experience, one now echoed by many current and former members of staff.

“They just want to ignore you and brush it under a carpet because there's paperwork that comes with it,” one told us.

“It's put in the too hard basket, or it's going to cost too much money.”

As our stories were hitting the air, carrying those details of nasty injuries and safety concerns, Talley’s staff were receiving a very different message.

With the legal threat failing them, executives went into full damage control. The general manager of vegetables, Danie Swanepoel, led the defensive front in messages sent to staff at the Ashburton factory.

The leaked emails, published here for the first time, show he took aim at the whistleblower directly.

“It is very disappointing that someone would choose to deliberately tarnish our reputation,” he wrote, before invoking language usually associated with political rebellions and uprisings.

“We will not be distracted by this act of sedition and continue to do what is right.”

He kept up the strong language as a second story broke, this time with news of frightened forklift drivers afraid of falling bulk bins.

“In yet another callous attack, the Ashburton site will again feature on One News tonight,” Mr Swanepoel told his workers.

“Keep your chins up, we will weather the storm and emerge stronger as one team.”

The rallying call continued yet again the following day, as another whistle blower came forward to call for more emergency stop buttons on their conveyer belts.

“The onslaught against our business continues,” he said.

“Thank you to everyone who remain steadfast in setting the records straight.”

But before long, that language started to shift.

WorkSafe soon announced action, beginning their “top to bottom review” by demanding their own boardroom meeting with the Talley’s boys, along with the directors of their major companies.

Talley’s publicly welcomed the move, offering its “full cooperation” to the Government watchdog.

Soon WorkSafe was going even further, arranging site visits across several Talley’s and AFFCO factories, in an effort to speak to managers, supervisors, and staff working on the factory floor.

Within a few weeks Swanepoel was back communicating with his staff in Ashburton, but his tone had noticeably softened.

“Many of us are looking deeper into the day-to-day activities and identifying opportunities for improvement,” he wrote.

“This is exactly what we need – the insights of everyone directly in touch with the process.”

The vegetable boss added that senior management had decided to temporarily stop one of the factory’s busy potato “fry lines”, usually one of the core productions on site.

He blamed the shut-down on a lack of migrant workers, but noted “maintenance efforts” were underway.

By the next morning, I was standing across from the factory’s front entrance, after a tip-off from inside hinting that WorkSafe was on the way.

We spotted the convoy by mid-morning, filming as their team pulled up in three white vehicles, ready to comb through the vegetable plant.

Another leaked email soon arrived in my inbox, Mr Swanepoel providing an update to staff.

“We have received 4 improvement notices (but no fines, prohibitions etc), involving the boiler, guarding, bulk bins and traffic management,” he wrote.

“There have also been a number of recommendations by the auditors that we have taken on board to help us improve.”

So much had changed, I thought, since that first boardroom show-down where Talley’s had tried to put an end to the story.

All of it possible because one person decided to come forward and speak out.

Do you have any information to share about Talley's? Email thomas.mead@tvnz.co.nz 

You can read more of Thomas Mead's stories on Talley's here:

Exclusive: Whistleblower shares images of filthy conditions at Talley's factory

Exclusive: Former Talley's employee feared he would die on the job

WorkSafe to 'look into' Talley's after whistleblowers come forward to 1 NEWS

New concerns emerged about safety at one of NZ’s biggest employers