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UPDATE: Fonterra chief heads to China amid botulism scare

UPDATE: Fonterra chief heads to China amid botulism scare

By Pattrick Smellie

Aug 3 (BusinessDesk) - Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings is heading from Europe to China this weekend for meetings with manufacturers who have used contaminated whey powder supplied by the New Zealand dairy giant for use in infant formula and other products.

The dairy cooperative is in crisis communications mode as it seeks to do the right thing by notifying that eight unnamed customers have received batches of a whey protein concentrate containing a "virulent" strain of a commonly occurring bacteria, clostridium, linked to the potentially fatal disease, botulism.

Fonterra's managing director of New Zealand Milk Products Gary Romano fronted a media conference this morning, where he reluctantly conceded that no products bearing Fonterra brands are affected by the scare.

The reactions from the eight affected customers, whom Romano declined to name, had reacted "as you would expect" to the news of the contamination, which occurred when the product was manufactured at a Waikato processing plant in May of last year and involves a total of 38 tonnes of product.

Romano was initially unwilling to answer whether Fonterra brands were safe from the contamination because of "the commercial aspects", an apparent reference to the potential for unaffected Fonterra brand products to experience better sales than competitors.

Other food manufacturers, potentially including others unaffected, will need either to confirm they haven't used the contaminated product or that they have and may need to issue product recalls.

Fonterra first became aware of the potential contamination in March of this year, 10 months after the dried product was manufactured, and subsequent testing revealed on July 31 the presence of Clostridium Botulinum. The bacteria take hundreds of variant forms with affects on milk products ranging from nothing through to food-spoiling and health risks.

“There have been no reports of any illness linked to consumption of the affected whey protein. Dairy products such as fresh milk, yoghurt, cheese, spreads and UHT milk products are not affected,” said Spierings in a statement.

The contamination arose because a "very little-used" piece of pipework was not properly sterilised before a batch of the whey protein, WPC80, was produced, said Romano. Asked whether there had been disciplinary action taken or systems upgrades to prevent a recurrence, he said the immediate focus was on informing customers and the public of the issue.

Discovery of the Cloridium Botulinum strain was "very rare" in the dairy industry, he said. "Our aim is to have that not happen again."

He confirmed the notification was "one of the reasons" for Spierings travelling to China this weekend but declined to elaborate on the length of time that elapsed between manufacture of the product and the testing which first set alarm bells ringing in March.

The fact that Fonterra had made the discovery was a consequence of the company's rigorous testing regimes, which went beyond the levels required by regulators, Romano said.

Under repeated questioning as to the identity of other affected brands, Romano stressed it was up to the eight customers in question to make their own decisions on how to communicate with their customers.

It was not possible to restrict concerns about the products to any particular territory, as they could subsequently have been sent to other markets.


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