Saturday, Fonterra Co-Operative Group Ltd., the world’s largest diary exporter, dealt New Zealand’s billion-dollar dairy industry a blow when it admitted that some of its product used in infant formula and sports drinks may contain a bacteria that could cause botulism. Botulism can cause severe and sometimes deadly cases of food poisoning.
Eight customers so far have been advised by Fonterra about a “quality Issue” which involves three batches of whey protein concentrate produced in a New Zealand manufacturing plant in May 2012. The three batches amounted to 38 tons of whey protein concentrate altogether.
Fonterra identified the issue in March. Intensive testing was carried out to isolate the specific bacteria. Tests on Wednesday indicated the potential presence of Clostridium Botulinum, which can cause botulism, according to Fonterra.
Gary Romano, Fonterra’s managing director for New Zealand milk products, stated at a media briefing:
It is in a range of different products and they have different amounts of sensitivity. The one that honestly we are concerned about is infant formula that’s been made from this product.”
Though he did not identify any of the customers or countries involved, late this Saturday, Fonterra said that no Fonterra-branded consumer products are affected.
Fontera has said three of the eight companies are food companies, two are beverage companies and three are companies that manufacture animal-stock feed.
According to Romano, the ball is now in the courts of those eight companies as to warning the public about the potential danger:
It is now up to those eight customers, in conjunction with their regulatory authorities, to make statements where appropriate.”
One of the products in New Zealand potentially affected by the contamination was named by New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries: Nutricia Karicare follow-on formula for children older than six months old.
New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries Acting Director General Scott Gallacher said Nutricia advised the ministry that five batches of follow-on formula were manufactured using the contaminated whey protein.
Three of the batches are reportedly in a warehouse in Auckland, one is on a ship and the other is in storage in Australia. All have been locked down. Still, he said he was advising parents to use alternatives until the information is verified.
The primary ingredient was reportedly mixed with others to make about 900 tons of consumer products. At this date, “a number of overseas markets” have received product containing the contaminated whey protein. Those markets include Australia, China, Malaysia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.
Fonterra stated that Chief Executive Theo Spierings was traveling to China Saturday. One of the reasons for his visit was the botulism matter.
Since 2008, China, a key market for Fonterra, and Chinese consumers have been particularly sensitive about infant formula. That year, at least six children died and 300,000 became sick from milk containing dangerous levels of melamine, a chemical that mimics the properties of protein. This resulted in producers of the formula watering down milk without apparently diluting its nutritional value.
Fonterra owned a large stake in one of the companies at the center of the scandal, the now-defunct Sanlu Group. Since Sanlu’s closing, Fonterra has bounced back and has flourished in China.
On Saturday, China’s quality watchdog asked the nation’s importers to recall milk products supplied by Fonterra.
The General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said in a statement on its website that local quality watchdogs have also been asked to strengthen testing of milk products from New Zealand.
The agency stated:
We attach great importance to this issue. We have immediately contacted the New Zealand embassy and urged it to take action in a timely measure.”
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a very small amount—a few nanograms—of toxin can cause illness. Fonterra said there are no reports of any illness linked to consumption.
While the incidence of botulism worldwide is low, the FDA mentions on its website that “the mortality rate is high if not treated immediately and properly.”
The problem, Mr. Romano said, was caused by an unsanitary pipe that wasn’t correctly sterilized. The length of time between detection and confirmation, he added, was due to the extensive testing that was carried out.
The whey protein concentrate is used in a range of products, including milk powder and sports drinks, besides the infant formula, according to Mr. Romano. Fonterra said products that aren’t affected include fresh milk, yogurt, cheese, spreads and UHT milk products.
Russia has made one of the most extreme responses to Fonterra’s contamination scare so far. Though it is not on the list of affected countries, it has banned all goods made by the New Zealand dairy giant, according to media reports.
China has reportedly introduced a blanket ban on all New Zealand milk powder imports, according to Trade Minister Tim Groser.
Fonterra infant formula and sports drinks have helped make the company into the giant that it is, but the recent reports that their products might contain botulism has caused their stock to drop and consumers to lose confidence in the safety of their products.
Written by: Douglas Cobb