Fonterra could not have given formula warnings in March, says Spierings
By Pattrick Smellie
Aug 5 (BusinessDesk) - The five month gap between traces of an often harmless bacteria being found in a batch of whey powder and the Aug public notification of a botulism risk was unavoidable, says Fonterra's chief executive Theo Spierings.
Speaking to New Zealand media from Beijing, where he fronted for a huge Chinese media contingent to apologise for the scare, which involves the lucrative and highly sensitive infant milk formula market, Spierings said the traces discovered during testing in March gave no cause for immediate action.
"We found the clostridium level was up, but you can't start reacting on that basis because you no idea what you are seeing," he said. "There are 191 strains (of clostridium), of which only a very limited number produce toxic strains. We have to go by the rules of micro-biology."
However, once testing over following months identified a strain of clostridium that causes the sometimes fatal illness botulism on July 31, Fonterra swung into action to inform affected parties.
Spierings contrasted the current scare with Fonterra's decision earlier this year not to publicise the discovery of traces of a nitrogen inhibitor, DCD, in milk powder, because DCD did not constitute a public health risk.
"The first question we ask ourselves is food safety," he said. "Here, on July 31, we knew there was a food safety risk. Once we had answered that question, we went out."
Fonterra has faced criticism from consumers, competitors and from senior government ministers, including Prime Minister John Key, over delays in notification.
"We are looking at the whole chain from May 2012", when the whey protein concentrate known as WPC80 was first manufactured, but it was not unusual for a dried ingredient product to remain in the supply chain for a year or more before being used.
Fonterra's general manager for NZ Milk Products, Gary Romano, said Fonterra shared the government's frustrations over delays between the July 31 and the Aug 3 public notification of the botulism scare.
"We have been frustrated by the time it's taken to give information to MPI (the New Zealand Ministry of Primary Industries)," said Romano.
Spierings said he would be staying on in China, Fonterra's largest market, to allow direct liaison with Chinese government officials, New Zealand diplomats and the New Zealand government.