Dr. Yasmine Motarjemi

She has fought alone and at great cost to herself.

Dr. Motarjemi suffers as do the prophets. The expression “no one is a prophet in their own land” also applies to whistleblowers who are denied their ultimate truth because they are seen outside their role as an employee or insider. A whistleblower reveals information about activity within a private or public organization that is deemed illegal, immoral, illicit, unsafe or fraudulent. The organization refuses to accept the truth from whistleblowers, not unlike the rejection of prophets of old.

Dr. Yasmine Motarjemi was born on July 3, 1955, in Shiraz, Iran, the daughter of Homayoun Motarjemi and Touran Talischi Heravi-Taba. She is of Iranian, Swedish and Swiss nationality. She studied chemistry and biology at the Claude-Bernard University in Lyon, France, and received a Master of Science in Techniques des Industries Alimentaires, Languedoc University of Science and Technology, Montpellier, France in 1978. She earned her Ph.D in Food Engineering and Technology, University of Lund, Sweden in 1988. After working as a Research Assistant at the University of Lund from 1980 to 1990, Dr. Motarjemi joined the World Health Organization (WHO). In 1990 she was employed at WHO as Senior Scientist and Acting Director in the field of Food Safety and Prevention of Foodborne Illnesses. Dr. Motarjemi, while at WHO, collaborated with the Nestlé company that worked with scientific and industry non-governmental organizations (NGO) in relation with WHO.

In 1998 Nestlé approached Dr. Motarjemi and asked her to join the company. At first Dr. Motarjemi refused, but Nestlé was persistent and cajoling, and two years later in 2000, Dr. Motarjemi joined Nestlé as Corporate Food Safety Manager responsible for food safety on a global level.

Nestlé global headquarters is located in Vevey, Switzerland, and their history began in 1866 when Henri Nestlé developed a breakthrough infant food. In 2016, Nestlé celebrated its 150th year as a company. Today Nestlé is the largest publicly held food company in the world. Detractors feel that Nestlé is possibly one of the world’s most corrupt corporations with unethical business practices such as taking clean drinking water in areas that need it and participating in human trafficking and child labor. It has more than 450 manufacturing facilities in over 80 countries spread over six continents. Nestlé has not been without controversy, including boycotts over the marketing of infant formula in poor countries, forced labor of child workers in West Africa, labor union problems and criticism of Nestlé’s water business. Nestlé was also found to have spied on its critics. Nestlé is global, a long established company, commanding a well-known brand and possessing deep financial pockets with its corporate headquarters in a country that has shown deep enmity to whistleblowers.

Dr. Motarjemi was raised in a family of medical and public health professionals where education, professionalism and responsibility were valued. Her education in the areas of science, technology and engineering taught her critical thinking skills and the value of her sense of duty and responsibility to fellow humans. It was only a matter of time before a committed, responsible, highly trained public health professional and an irresponsible, greedy corporate entity were bound to clash.

After joining Nestlé, Dr. Motarjemi saw staff that seemed to care more about their salary and position rather than a responsibility to consumers. A survey taken in 2000 at Nestlé showed that 10% of the staff were victims of bullying and mobbing (bullying of an individual by a group). Dr. Motarjemi recognized that the corporate culture at Nestlé had a negative impact on food safety because problems were identified, but raising these problems to management resulted in being ostracized or having a career terminated. Dr. Motarjemi was not familiar with the concept of whistleblowing, but was familiar from her upbringing and educational training of her responsibility to the public, and the importance of speaking up.

Dr. Motarjemi worked hard, solved problems and strengthened food safety issues at Nestlé. She was rewarded with performance evaluations that were consistently above expectations. She managed many crisis situations and redesigned the Nestle food safety management system.

In 2005, Dr. Motarjemi faced a major crisis at Nestlé when infant formula was contaminated with traces of a component of ink on the packaging. When Dr. Motarjemi’s superior recalled the contaminated product from the market, he was removed from his position. A new individual was appointed as her superior, Director of Quality. Dr. Motarjemi had previously confronted him over food safety issues as he had authorized the sale of Nestlé baby biscuits which had been shown to cause choking in infants. He had also authorized the sale of compromised Nestlé infant formula in China.

The coup de grâce for Dr. Motarjemi came shortly after a Nestlé company policy was established and circulated, which rewarded managers who did not recall defective/contaminated products from the market. Regardless of this policy, Dr. Motarjemi continued to check and test Nestlé products for contamination and report problems as they occurred. As a result, her Quality Management Director started a campaign of harassment and mobbing against her, and continued ignoring safety protocols, such as testing raw materials for chemical contaminants and relying on suppliers to do the critically important testing.

Dr. Motarjemi’s concerns were on vivid display in 2005 when hundreds of pets died with aflatoxin poisoning in Nestlé products, and again in 2008 when 300,000 infants in China were poisoned with contaminated infant formula resulting in several deaths. Nestlé claimed that their infant formula was not contaminated, but internal documents exposed the contamination of the same products in South Africa, which were quietly withdrawn. Since Nestlé was not testing their raw material or products, they never detected the problem. Nestlé had another melamine incident where many pets died due to pet food containing the substance. Several choking incidents, some fatal, also occurred with a Nestlé product from 2008 to 2012. In 2009, Nestlé was responsible for a major E. coli 0157 outbreak in the United States with contaminated cookie dough.

Dr. Motarjemi raised the alarm, noted the problems, and contacted Nestlé upper management. Retaliation was swift and severe, with a “sustained and persistent bullying and harassment” campaign. Dr. Motarjemi continued blowing the whistle for four years, and was met with a downgrading of her position, being stripped of projects, the dismantling of her team, humiliation, isolation, slander, denigration, threats, humiliating job assignments, and daily harassment.

Dr. Motarjemi demanded an inquiry, and in 2009, Nestle executives conducted a “bogus/fictitious investigation.” Nestlé produced a report without conducting any fact finding duties. There was never an investigation or audit into the behavior by Nestlé. A Swiss court confirmed at a later date that Nestlé did not conduct a real investigation, but conducted a phony one.

Dr. Motarjemi blew the whistle from 2006 until 2010 to every level of Nestlé management, all of whom turned a blind eye. One Nestlé manager wrote to her: “We all know it (corruption of testing and recall) but we keep quiet because we have a family to feed and a retirement to ensure.” Dr. Motarjemi was also presented a sculpture of the three wise monkeys symbolizing the motto of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” to provide her with work advice. In fact, it turned out that in her workplace, Dr. Motarjemi was subjected to “employees not talking to her, not seeing her, and not hearing her” after she blew the whistle.

At the end of 2009, Dr. Motarjemi had her lawyer seeking a meeting with the CEO of Nestlé, but she was terminated and not given an opportunity to speak. Her dismissal was a “difference of opinion in food safety management.” She was offered money “On the condition that I would not file a complaint and warned, that according to Swiss law, I am not allowed to reveal what happened in the company.” Dr. Motarjemi rejected the offer, noting that Nestlé refused to recognize and correct the wrongdoing which had led to the deaths, choking incidents and E.coli outbreak, and melamine incident affecting humans and pets.

In 2010, Dr. Motarjemi filed a lawsuit against Nestlé. Nestlé then responded by filing a lawsuit against her for making her case public, and the Nestlé Pension fund filed a lawsuit against her for her books, publications and Encyclopedia of Food Safety that Dr. Motarjemi had produced. Nestlé instituted a siege of judicial harassment and delaying techniques, and blacklisted Dr. Motarjemi. She lost her professional and social status and Nestlé “did everything they could to waste my resources, time, energy, to taint my reputation and credibility.” In Swiss Court, Nestlé management continued to publicly slander and humiliate her. The Court attempted to pressure her to make an out-of-court settlement, which “in Switzerland is conditioned by a non-disclosure clause.” Dr. Motarjemi was not willing to be silenced.

In 2015, a Swiss court ruled that Nestlé pension fund was in error and noted that, “Mrs. Motarjemi is a very committed and honest woman. She gives her best to each solicitation, whatever it may be, with an obvious concern to satisfy the other….Mrs. Motarjemi has an uncommon sense of responsibility and duty..” (translated).

One Nestlé witness in Court, the Head of Technology and Research, advised the judge that he knew of the problems raised by Dr. Motarjemi, but had done nothing. The Judge asked him how important food safety was at Nestlé on a scale of 1 to 10. He answered 4 to 5. The Judge questioned the Director Quality, asking why he continued to market unsafe products against the advice of scientists like Dr. Motarjemi, and he responded that he did not care about science or scientists. He told the Judge that he gets the information he needs from the cookbook “Larousse gastronomique.”

Dr. Motarjemi, suffering the humiliations heaped upon her by Nestlé, blacklisted, sued and suffering financial ruination, was finally vindicated in January 2020 after ten years of legal battles. The Civil Court of Appeal at the Canton, Vaud, Switzerland, condemned Nestlé for violating Swiss law, and it confirmed that Nestlé had ignored all of Dr. Motarjemi’s warnings regarding food safety. Her life savings totally depleted, her life damaged, Dr. Motarjemi discovered that Nestlé refused to acknowledge the wrongdoing it committed and refused to take corrective action. Nestlé refused to compensate her and claimed that she must bear all legal costs.

There are no penalties in Switzerland for Nestlé, a company who violated laws and ruined the life of a whistleblower. To this day there has been no investigation of food safety failures or condemnation of Nestlé food safety failures or violations. Nestle endangered the public health, and the cruelest blow to Dr. Motarjemi was the discovery that the colleagues and managers who lied about her at her job, and in court have been promoted.

Dr. Motarjemi has continued her clarion call for public health safety, and resolution of problems at Nestlé. There has been little media attention given to Dr. Motarjemi, and she joins a small list of Swiss whistleblowers like Rudolf Elmer (Julius Baer Bank), Michel Christopher Meili (Union Bank), Stanley Adams (Hoffman-LaRoche), Mark Hodler (Olympic Committee) Bradley Birkenfeld (UBS Group), and Trevor Kitchen (Currency Manipulation).

The Swiss parliament has debated protecting whistleblowers for 19 years with no positive results. There is no legal duty for companies in Switzerland to establish proactive guidelines for whistleblowers, such as a hotline. There are no laws protecting whistleblowers, and under Swiss law, whistleblowers end up exposing themselves to civil and criminal penalties. The Swiss courts regularly treat disclosing confidential information to the public as a criminal offense, such as breaching manufacturing or business secrecy (Article 162 of the Criminal Code) or banking secrecy (Article 47 of the Banking Act). Whistleblower Network News has reported previously on Swiss whistleblowers, including Bradley Birkenfeld and Trevor Kitchen.

The issue of whistleblowing has long been buried by Swiss lawmakers over the years, however pressure in the form of European Union whistleblower guidelines and United Nations inquiries has started a conversation in Switzerland regarding their banking secrecy laws and abysmal treatment of whistleblowers.

Dr. Motarjemi noted, “At the end of the story, despite all the regulations and media publicity around the subject and a number of NGOs active in the field, whistleblowing remains a lonely journey.” For prophets of old, those truth tellers, it was also a lonely journey, but they never wavered. Neither does Dr. Motarjemi.

View Dr. Yasmine Motarjemi’s petition here.

Listen to the Whistleblower of the Week podcast featuring Dr. Motarjemi here. 

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