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Zim food fight breaks out in SA courts

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MoneyWeb


If Zimbabwe Stock Exchange (ZSE)-listed food giant Innscor was hoping to avoid press scrutiny, it could hardly have chosen a more self-destructive path than seeking a gag order against journalist Rutendo Matinyarare, a prolific campaigner against what he says is the deteriorating quality of food in that country.

The story has blown up in Zimbabwe, with hundreds of thousands of engagements on social media, and some prominent personalities weighing in with thoughts of their own.

The controversy has stirred the Grain Millers Association of Zimbabwe to issue a statement of its own, saying the statements by Matinyarare are baseless and harmful to the industry.

Matinyarare refuses to back down, and in the past few days took to social media to publish results from a French safety laboratory showing high levels of genetically-modified organism (GMO) in a food sample produced by Innscor companies.

GMO is banned in Zimbabwe and several other African countries as it is deemed to be harmful to human health. (It is not banned in SA.)

Moneyweb can report on the case because it is all detailed in papers before the Johannesburg High Court.

Gag order

The gag order was granted against Matinyarare and his company Frontline Strat Marketing Consultancy by Justice Namhla Siwendu in the Johannesburg High Court on 9 January 2024, pending the anticipated launch of a further action by Innscor seeking damages against Matinyarare.

The order required Matinyarare to delete an X (formerly Twitter) account with the handle “Innscor has destroyed the taste of Zim food” and two video clips entitled “The Innscor problem explained” on Twitter and Facebook.

Matinyarare’s legal team says it is highly irregular for a Zimbabwean company to approach a South African court for relief against Matinyarare, as he was in Zimbabwe at the time papers were served on him.

The legal team has approached the court for a reconsideration of the gag order, and that case will be heard on 13 March.

‘Offending’ material

Deposing for Innscor Africa in the gag order case, company secretary Andrew Lorimer gets to the heart of the complaint by pointing to some of the offending and allegedly defamatory material, published on the Frontline website:

“Zimbabwe used to produce some of the best-tasting organic yellow fat beef, pork and chicken globally, and we exported excellent beef to the UK. We also had exceptional broiler chicken and pork until Innscor and the introduction of hybrid chickens and franchenstein (Frankenstein)16 tit porkers.”

According to Lorimer’s affidavit, Matinyarare goes on to claim that Innscor took over meat producer Colcom and introduced genetically-modified feeds, steroids, injections and hybrids “which substituted taste for weight, ultimately destroying the unique taste of Zimbabwean commercially-grown meat”.

“The beef used to have yellow fat, thanks to carotene from grass feeding, but it has now been replaced by nasty-tasting white fat GMO from South Africa and Brazil.”

Matinyarare also claims the GMO grain is laced with cancer-causing pesticides along with growth hormones, vaccines, medicines and steroids, which give the meat “a synthetic flavour and texture”.

‘Terrible and tasteless’

He then took to X to bewail the deterioration in Zimbabwe’s animal feed supplied by Innscor company Profeeds which has made eggs, chicken, beef, pork and farmed fish “terrible” and “tasteless”.

Lorimer’s affidavit states that Matinyarare defamed Innscor co-founder Zinona Koudounaris by associating him with allegations of misdeeds and insinuating that he could be involved in illegal or corrupt activities.

“Considering that Mr Koudounaris was born and raised in Zimbabwe, [Matinyarare’s] comments are without merit and racially discriminatory,” claims Lorimer.

He then describes how his SA-based attorneys served Matinyarare and Frontline with letters demanding the removal of the offending material.

Despite this, the allegedly defamatory material remained online.

Reputation

Innscor’s reputation is important in SA, Zimbabwe and abroad “as it trades on an international basis and any adverse publicity may negatively impact its share price,” says Lorimer.

Innscor is controlled by Zinona Koudounaris, better known as Zed, one of Zimbabwe’s wealthiest men, reportedly worth US$734 million in 2022. He and business partner Michael Fowler founded Innscor in 1996 and went on to build a massive food empire that now spans eight African countries.

The company is listed on the ZSE and has interests in several other ZSE companies: Padenga, Colcom, Axia Holdings, Simbisa Brands and 37.45% in National Foods (in which SA’s Tiger Brands also has a 37.45% interest).

Innscor employs more than 10 000 people, supports more than 200 small-scale farmers and makes huge food donations to the needy in Zimbabwe, according to its court filings.

Innscor produced total revenue of US$804 million (R15.5 billion) and operating profit of US$91 million (R1.76 billion) for the June 2023 financial year.

It operates well-known franchise brands such as Spar, Steers, Nando’s, Chicken Inn and Galito’s, among several dozen other businesses involved in light manufacturing, flour and maize milling, stock feed and edible oil feeds, day-old chicks, eggs, pork and stock feeds.

The allegedly defamatory statements are sowing uncertainty in the minds of consumers about the health and safety of Innscor’s products, says Lorimer, adding that the company is receiving “undue and unwarranted scrutiny” from the public, regulatory agencies, shareholders and partners.

Innscor then says it intends to sue for damages, though quantifying the harm is difficult given the adverse effects of these statements on its brand, business, goodwill and reputation.

Matinyarare fires back

Matinyarare responded to Innscor by challenging its claim to possessing a good reputation with page after page of negative press, including several multi-million-dollar fines imposed on it by Zimbabwe’s competition authority, and an August 2022 article in the Zimbabwean Independent in which vice-president of the country, General Constantino Chiwenga, referred to Innscor as an enemy of the state.

The journalist then launched a Facebook page entitled “Name and shame them Zimbabwe” as an outlet for consumer complaints about poor quality products and services, and in which Innscor is featured more than any other company.

Matinyarare caused a storm in Zimbabwe over the past week with news that he had Innscor food products tested by a safety laboratory and found them to contain harmful substances.

In a supplementary affidavit filed on Friday in the Johannesburg High Court, Matinyarare provides the test results from Mérieux NutriSciences, showing that the food samples provided contain GMOs – in violation of Zimbabwean law.

The most concerning finding in the test results is that Mérieux NutriSciences found “a disproportionately high level of GMO content that exceed the GMOs in South African food even though South Africa has legalised GMOs (under strict conditions and tests), but Zimbabwe has banned them,” deposes Matinyarare.

Contempt of court application

Matinyarare jumped on social media to report the laboratory’s findings, which were widely reported in the Zimbabwean press. In response, last week Innscor filed a contempt of court application against Matinyarare for posting the lab results.

Advocate Simba Chitando, who is representing Matinyarare, says he has been instructed to oppose the contempt application.

“Posting lab test results is not a crime,” says Chitando.

“The evidence against Innscor is serious, and has severe civil and criminal consequences for Innscor, and its directors in their personal capacities.

“The interdict against Mr Matinyarare strikes at the heart of the free press.

“In my view, Judge Siwendu’s order was wrong. South African Courts have no jurisdiction to restrain any Zimbabwean journalist from making any publications in their own country.

“Zimbabwe is not a South African colony,” he adds.

“Zimbabweans have a right to know what is in the food Innscor is distributing to millions of unsuspecting Zimbabweans who trust that what they buy from Innscor will not cause life threatening health complications.”

Moneyweb reached out to Innscor’s legal representative in SA but had not received a reply by the time of publication.