Fonterra reveals another Chinese hiccup after May quarantine over nitrate levels
By Paul McBeth
Aug. 21 (BusinessDesk) - Fonterra Cooperative Group, beset by food standards issues after the bacteria that can cause botulism was found in its supply chain, had another stumble in China in May when 42 tonnes of milk powder were held up over elevated nitrate levels.
Chinese authorities held up 163 batches at the border in May after tests found the powder didn’t meet the nation’s specifications, a Fonterra spokesman said in an emailed statement. The powder had passed New Zealand standards, and Fonterra said it always had control of the product. Fonterra didn’t disclose the quarantine at the time.
“This can happen, for example, when different laboratories and testing methodologies are applied,” the spokesman said. “In this case, we chose to accept the Chinese laboratory results and implemented the necessary processes and documentation that is required for advising regulators in both China and New Zealand of non-compliant product.”
The discovery comes in the same week rival Westland Milk had export certificates revoked for a small quantity of lactoferrin after unacceptable levels of nitrates were discovered in four consignments.
Fonterra is attempting to reclaim its reputation for producing safe dairy products after the discovery of bacteria in 38 metric tonnes of whey protein concentrate manufactured at its Hautapu plant, used to manufacture infant formula, juice and dairy beverages, yoghurt, body building powder, and animal stock food.
The bacteria find sparked a recall of products and sent Fonterra into damage control with chief executive Theo Spierings flying straight to the company’s key market, China, as several import bans were imposed on the dairy products.
Fonterra’s NZ Milk managing director Gary Romano, who fronted local media over the food scare, resigned last week, and two other executives have been put on leave.
At the same time, a Sri Lankan health union won a two-week ban on all Fonterra products amid claims the dairy exporter’s food was showing traces of a nitrate inhibitor known as DCD, which kicked off an earlier international scare at the start of the year.
The food safety issues have also sent the government into overdrive, as it rushes to pass legislation allowing a hasty ministerial inquiry, so Prime Minister John Key can go to China to reassure consumers in the world’s most populous nation.
The Ministry for Primary Industries is also reviewing the botulism scare to see whether Fonterra breached any food safety laws or regulations, and Fonterra itself is holding two separate inquiries.
Labour Party primary industries spokesman Damian O’Connor said he was “alarmed” to hear of the latest contamination.
“Revelations about this ban on Fonterra milk powder come at a time of intense international scrutiny of our dairy industry,” he said in a statement.
The repeated issues with dairy products haven’t deterred buyers, with 56,173 metric tonnes of dairy products sold on Fonterra’s online auction, GlobalDairyTrade, today, and a 2.3 percent lift in the average trade-weighted price across all products. Fonterra sold 3.9 million tonnes of dairy products in the 2012 financial year.
Units in the Fonterra Shareholders’ Fund fell 0.6 percent to $6.91 today.