The Chancellor himself was there. The Minister of Economic Affairs and Labor and the Governor of Lower Austria also got a personal impression of the mask production at the newly founded Hygiene Austria in Wiener Neudorf in the spring of 2020. The corona crisis has shown how important it is that protective equipment is produced in Austria and Europe, it said.
For a few days now, the previously highly praised joint venture between Lenzing and Palmers has been met with a wave of mistrust. The company admitted on Wednesday evening that it had also had FFP2 masks manufactured in China “in order to cope with an intermittent increase in demand”. But this was kept from the buyers. Hygiene Austria vehemently rejected the allegations of serious commercial fraud and organized undeclared work, which the Economic and Corruption Public Prosecutor’s Office (WKStA) is investigating.
External investigation team, share slips
Hofer, Rewe, Spar and dm drugstore took the FFP2 masks from Hygiene Austria out of the range for the time being. They want proof that the masks were produced in Austria. And majority owner Lenzing is pulling the reins tighter. As planned for a long time, the listed Upper Austrian fiber manufacturer will take over management control at Hygiene Austria LP GmbH and appoint an additional managing director in Stephan Sielaff. An external forensic investigation team will also be appointed.
“We’re pulling the rip cord,” says Lenzing spokesman Johannes Vetter. “We want to clarify quickly with Sielaff and the investigation team. The facts have to be on the table.” The group is very interested in this. There should be a result by the middle of next week. “We want to be able to communicate again as quickly as possible,” says Vetter.
The code number 2233 on the FFP2 masks from Hygiene Austria indicates that they have been tested by the Hungarian company Gépteszt based in Budapest. Austria has only had a notifying body with the Federal Office for Metrology and Surveying since November 2020, says a spokesman for the Ministry of Economics. There was a preliminary examination in August, but it turned out negative. “But that didn’t really mean anything because we couldn’t officially check at the time,” said the spokesman. Afterwards, there was no further review by the Federal Office. It is up to them in which European country manufacturers have their CE-marked products tested.
On Wednesday evening, however, Hygiene Austria said that the Chinese contract manufacturer had been commissioned with the production of masks “based on the Hygiene Austria model”. And: “The CE certification according to EN149: 2001 was perfectly ensured by the Swiss company SGS.” The reports for the masks would be available and made available to the public prosecutor’s office.
So far, the business of Hygiene Austria LP GmbH has been managed by Tino Wieser and Stephan Trubrich, whereby Tino Wieser (like his brother Luca Wieser) is a member of the board of the Hygiene Austria minority owner Palmers Textil AG and Trubrich is responsible for capital market activities at Lenzing is. Nothing should change in the stake split of 50.1 percent Lenzing and 49.9 percent Palmers. Palmers did not want to comment on the “Wiener Zeitung” when asked.
The stock exchange reacted with a huff to the events around the Hygiene Austria. The Lenzing share slipped 2.4 percent by Thursday afternoon after losing more than five percent the day before.
Federal procurement put the contract on hold
The Hygiene Austria masks were ordered by the Federal Procurement Agency BBG, among others. This has already reacted to the house searches and made the company “inactive” as a contractor. Until further notice, it will therefore not be possible to order or request protective masks from Hygiene Austria via the BBG.
It is still unclear who the BBG ordered and in what number of masks. According to the EU-wide tender, the contract was worth 420 million euros. One of its customers was the Austrian parliament. The Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) also announced that they had obtained 576,000 FFP2 masks with CE certificate from Hygiene Austria from a framework agreement via the BBG.
Misleading advertising lawsuits
“Basically, a false designation of origin is misleading advertising. This is relevant according to the law against unfair competition,” said Peter Kolba, chairman of the consumer protection association. Lawsuits against it are possible, class actions are unlikely. Competitors can take legal action against misleading advertising, as can the Chamber of Commerce, the Chamber of Labor and the Association for Consumer Information with a representative action. Consumers themselves cannot take direct action against hygiene Austria, as most of them did not buy their masks directly from the company, but through intermediaries such as pharmacies.