Consumer cops are investigating Thermomix over injuries to owners - and attempts to silence them.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission yesterday confirmed it was scrutinising "safety concerns and reports of confidentiality requirements" after News Corp Australia learnt of the official probe using freedom of information laws.
About 300,000 Australians own a Thermomix. Most are ardent advocates for the food processors, which cost about $2000. There are also a number of Thermomix sales representatives in New Zealand.
However, in May this year the consumer group Choice sent the ACCC a report cataloguing 83 incidents involving TM31s and four about the newer TM5.
Choice said at least 18 people needed medical treatment after being hurt using a Thermomix and that the supplier should have made 10 mandatory notifications to the ACCC, which is the national product safety regulator.
Choice also raised concerns about the use of nondisclosure agreements.
It called on the ACCC to launch an investigation and it can now be revealed the ACCC already had.
"The ACCC has been investigating this matter in relation to reported safety concerns and reports of confidentiality requirements since March 2016," a spokeswoman told News Corp Australia. "Safety concerns have been reported in relation to both the TM31 and the TM5."
After Choice sent the "mass incident report", News Corp Australia asked the ACCC how many mandatory notifications had been made.
The ACCC said it couldn't say how many because the supplier, Thermomix in Australia Pty Ltd (TiA) and the German manufacturer, Vorwerk, wanted the information kept confidential. Many other companies allow the ACCC to disclose information about safety notifications.
So, in late May, News Corp Australia requested under the Freedom of Information Act details of all Thermomix notifications as well as correspondence between the ACCC and the two companies since the start of 2014.
Seventeen documents matched the request. The ACCC this week decided it would grant partial access to one.
Still, the "schedule of documents" matching the request shows access to 12 was denied for reasons including "prejudice of ongoing investigation", thereby revealing Thermomix was in the ACCC's crosshairs.
Choice spokesman Tom Godfrey said: "It is deeply concerning that vital information about the number and nature of injuries caused by products like the Thermomix TM31 continues to be hidden from public."
TiA and Vorwerk have hired the crisis management firm Powell Tate to manage their public relations.
It issued a statement on behalf the companies yesterday which said: "The safety, welfare and support of our customers is (sic) and always has (sic) been our highest priority. TiA and Vorwerk are aware of the ACCC investigation. We have always fully co-operated with the relevant authorities and will continue to do so. We do not wish to prejudice the outcome of the review by the ACCC by commenting further at this time."
In 2014, the ACCC investigated the way the TM5 was launched. Some consumers said they bought the older TM31 in the days before the launch because there was no inkling a superior device was in the offing.
Unhappy Thermomix customers claim they were 'gagged'
Unhappy Thermomix customers have accused the company of using "dirty tactics", saying the cult kitchen brand demanded they sign nondisclosure agreements before receiving refunds for faulty products.
The company claims to have 300,000 Australian customers, but critics have accused management of intimidating and bullying customers who try to arrange a refund, repair or replacement of faulty machines.
Carly Cindric, from Western Australia, purchased a TM5 Thermomix in 2014. By February 2015, the lid would not lock and the machine shut down whenever she tried to use it. She spent the next few months lobbying the brand for a refund.
"They only offered me a refund after I lodged a consumer complaint with the Magistrates Court of Western Australia, outlining all the problems I'd had," Mrs Cindric told news.com.au.
"Thermomix did attempt to get me to sign a gag order, but I refused. I was successful in getting a refund in the end."
A Sydney woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says she was "coerced" into signing an NDA in November last year after suffering severe burns when the seal on her TM31 Thermomix broke.
"They said they wouldn't give me a refund unless I signed the gag order and I was sick of fighting," she said.
Another woman from Victoria, who also wanted to remain anonymous, said Thermomix were happy to give her a refund of her faulty TM31, but required her to sign the document and agree to keep quiet.
"I was forced to sign a gag order, which I stated from day dot that I refused to do. After fighting for over 12 months, I just wanted the machine gone and a refund," she said.
The nondisclosure agreement, which news.com.au has seen, states the terms of the "settlement" are confidential and must not be discussed without prior written consent.
"You also agree not to disparage, speak ill of, or comment negatively about Thermomix or [parent company] Vorwerk, and not to take any action which is intended, or would reasonably be expected, to harm the reputation of Thermomix or Vorwerk, or lead to unwanted or unfavourable publicity," the document states.
A spokeswoman for Thermomix told news.com.au it is "standard legal practice" for all parties to sign a confidentiality agreement when a legal dispute is settled.
But she refuted claims customers who request a refund on a faulty item are required to sign an NDA.
"Where a customer has asked for a refund due to a fault with an appliance, and our technicians confirm such a fault after inspecting the appliance, we provide the customer with a refund and do not require them to sign a confidentiality agreement," she said in a statement.
Refunds on machines damaged in transit can only be processed within 48 hours of receiving the items. They do not offer change of mind refunds.
"Any other reason to request a refund would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis," the spokeswoman said.
Consumer group Choice says it is concerned by the reports that Thermomix is "playing hardball" when it comes to customers seeking a refund.
"Choice is aware of one such customer, whose Thermomix TM31 has reportedly suffered multiple failures, claiming the company tried to pressure her into signing a confidentiality agreement in exchange for any refund," spokesman Tom Godfrey said.
The ACCC is "currently considering a number of issues associated with the recall of defective Thermomix products," a spokesman said.
These allegations come after Western Australia woman Danika Jones revealed she is pursuing legal action against Thermomix. Ms Jones was left with second-degree burns to her chest, stomach and arms after her Thermomix burst open.