Israel’s Strauss Group has been accused of “significant failings” in its “protocols and conduct” after a government audit of an Elite factory at the centre of a national salmonella scare and product recall.

The investigation looked at production, quality assurance and staffing at the plant in the northern city of Nof Hagalil.

Last week, Israel’s Ministry of Health suspended the facility’s production permit, an order Strauss Group said would last “three months or until the defects are corrected”.

Publicly-listed Strauss Group had already shut the plant after a company inspection found traces of salmonella.

However, publishing the results of its audit on Sunday (1 May), the Ministry of Health questioned practices at the factory.

It said Strauss Group had carried out maintenance works in recent months but “chocolate manufacturing actions continued unchanged, without taking into account the potential risks that may influence the manufacturing process and the factory’s quality control”.

During the Ministry of Health’s inspection, Strauss Group told government officials there had been an incident of pigeon infestation in the manufacturing area of the factory “several weeks before”. The Ministry said the company had stated the matter was “dealt with immediately and that an exterminator was brought in”.

However, the Ministry added: “The company was required to conduct extensive tests to check whether or not the pigeon infestation influenced the safety of the product in any way.”

The Ministry, meanwhile, revealed a client of the factory had “filed a complaint that salmonella indicators were higher than the levels permitted for liquid chocolate”. However, the complaint was not processed by the factory as required and no tests were performed to determine the presence of salmonella bacteria, it stated.

Elsewhere, the Ministry said its audit had found the factory’s quality assurance staff has been replaced over the course of last year. The site’s position for director of food safety was also left temporarily vacant. “These facts are indicative of the fact that the quality assurance and safety array in the factory was lacking,” the Ministry argued.

Officials also said there had been “a significant failing” in the defrosting of the dairy fat component of milk chocolate. “It was found that the defrosting process was not executed in accordance with the manufacturer’s defrosting and storage instructions, a failing that may lead to contamination,” the Ministry said.

Just Food has approached Strauss Group for comment.

On 25 April, Strauss Group announced “routine tests” had shown “a number of samples containing salmonella” on a production line at the plant and in chocolate used as a raw material in the manufacture of finished items. The discovery led the company to recall all chocolate products made at the factory from 20 February.

Two days later, Strauss Group announced it would only restart production after “all is repaired and products are completely safe for consumption”.

At the time, it added lab results “indicate an initial suspicion” of salmonella in two out of 270 samples of products that had been distributed to retailers and which were part of the first recall.

The results led Strauss Group on 27 April to expand the recall to all confectionery products made at the factory, including cakes, cereal bars and chewing gum.

In the Ministry’s statement on Sunday, it said “out of about 300 samples” collected so far from the Nof Hagalil factory’s production line, raw materials and products – both within the site and from those already distributed – “about 30 salmonella positive samples have been found so far”.

It added: “The positive samples are only from this factory.”

The Ministry said 21 cases of salmonella infection of people “of varying ages” have been reported as “having an alleged link to the chocolate event”.

Six patients have been hospitalised, while all others sought medical care in the community,” the Ministry added. “On the face of it, at this stage, it seems that these numbers are not exceptional and are not indicative of an extensive outbreak.”

In the US last week, the country’s Food and Drug Administration said Strauss Group was recalling Elite-branded products that had been distributed at kosher stores in the country, as well as online via retailers including Amazon.

Meanwhile, reports in Israel said a fire broke out at the Nof Hagalil factory on 2 May. The blaze was kept to a training room and there were no injuries, The Times of Israel reported.