Dr. Yasmine Motarjemi joined Nestlé in 2000 as its corporate food safety manager and was in charge of food safety at the global level. She continuously raised concerns related to food safety and mishandling of food safety management: as an example, in 2005 Dr. Motarjemi “advocated for transparency in a situation in which infant formula had to be recalled because of a presence of ink from the packaging,” prior WNN reporting states. She was subjected to harsh retaliation for her whistleblowing and entered into a court battle with Nestlé in 2011. Now, Dr. Motarjemi is advocating for change in whistleblower laws, supporting other whistleblowers, and hoping that her story spurs change.
Failures in the Whistleblowing System and Helping Out Fellow Whistleblowers
Dr. Motarjemi told WNN that she has been advocating for whistleblowing and supporting other whistleblowers like Stephanie Gibaud, who “assisted French authorities during the 2011 French Open in obtaining evidence on how UBS illegally courted clients in France to hide their assets in the Swiss bank.” According to WNN, “Gibaud’s assistance helped lead to nearly 2 billion euros in penalties against UBS.” Gibaud was fired from her job in 2012 and sought €3.5 million for compensation for her losses and damages, but in 2018 “the Paris administrative court only awarded her €3,500,” WNN reported. “This case robbed me of my entire life,” Gibaud told judges in July.
Dr. Motarjemi provided updates on the toll whistleblowing has taken on Gibaud, saying, “She has been suffering for so many years” and lost her home as well as her job.
Dr. Motarjemi also talked about the conflicts within the French government in their treatment of whistleblowers and following up on whistleblower disclosures. Regarding Gibaud’s case, Dr. Motarjemi remarked, “Even if the court is judging the case and saying that she should be compensated, the ministry of economy is refusing to compensate her. This is a huge scandal, and this shows that whistleblowing, even in the best countries, is a trap.”
In September, Dr. Motarjemi sent a letter to Ugo Bernalicis, a Member of the French Assembly, asking him to reassess Gibaud’s case and his decision to appeal a court decision regarding compensation for Gibaud.
Thus, Dr. Motarjemi is aiming “to blow the whistle on the fact that whistleblowing is not working in some countries…We are blowing the whistle that, be careful, there is a law on paper but these laws are violated by the government itself.” In 2019, she worked to advocate against a proposed law she said would have been harmful for whistleblowing in Switzerland.
Lessons from Her Story and Advocating for Change
Dr. Motarjemi wants lawmakers, food safety experts, and others to learn from her whistleblowing story. Along with helping out fellow whistleblowers like Gibaud, she writes articles about whistleblower laws and where they fall short and raises awareness about the challenges whistleblowers face. “I have tried to introduce this subject and put this on the agenda of the food professionals, and to bring their attention to this subject,” Dr. Motarjemi told WNN.
She created a survey that centered around food scientists’ knowledge about whistleblowing and made a number of recommendations, including “making retaliation against whistleblowers or food safety professionals a food safety failure.”
“What I’m trying to bring to the attention of the food safety community, the risk manager communities, is that when a food safety manager is being harassed and is disempowered to do his or her job, this is per se a food safety failure,” Dr. Motarjemi said. She wants to explain to the food safety community that “those who are whistleblowers may be subject to harassment, but harassment is a food safety failure that needs to be reported and should be also examined during inspection and audit of operations.”
One core issue she discussed was the failure of regulatory bodies and entities to follow up on issues that whistleblowers raise. “Why should anyone blow the whistle if the issue is not followed up?” Dr. Motarjemi questioned. She reflected on her own whistleblowing story and the concerns she tried to raise at Nestlé: “No one followed up, no one wanted to listen.”
Dr. Motarjemi also brought up how the globalized world we live in obfuscates processes for blowing the whistle and voicing concerns about issues that have worldwide implications. “I was seeing malpractice, mismanagement in food safety, and at the time I was seeing this, I couldn’t know where this malpractice was going to hit. Is it going to hit the U.S., China, Philippines, South Africa? So I was already facing a global challenge, and I didn’t know to whom I should report because there is no global regulatory whistleblowing agency. My issue was global,” she said.
Ideally, how would people learn from her whistleblowing story? “What I wish is that this member of the Parliament in France is that they resolve this internal coordination within their organization so that whistleblowers will not need to suffer and the case of Ms. Stephanie Gibraud is resolved in the best possible way as she deserves.” Dr. Motarjemi would love for someone in parliament to “set up a commission of experts to examine my experience from A to Z. Analyze it, and to see what are the failures and to see what kinds of laws or regulations need to be established.”
“In my own case, what I would like is that they set up a commission of experts, including food safety experts, even international experts. It should be an international commission. Perhaps they could ask WHO to set up such a commission. And ask the commission to look at my story, my journey, from a food safety perspective, from a risk management perspective, did they do this right,” Dr. Motarjemi suggested.
“And write an opinion, what Nestlé did wrong and then to see what needs to be changed in the laws regarding food safety management or whistleblowing or harassment, treatment of personnel, or management of the company. Because my experience was in food safety, but it could have happened in any subject area,” she said to WNN.
Read a profile about Dr. Motarjemi here.
Listen to the Whistleblower of the Week podcast episode featuring Dr. Motarjemi here.
See a short interview with Dr. Motarjemi, along with 29 other amazing whistleblowers, in “Whistleblower Voices,” WNN’s video series in commemoration of National Whistleblower Day 2022!