Fonterra chief Theo Spierings executive apologises over botulism scare

Diary product giant announced last week that some products may contain contaminated whey-protein concentrate
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The chief executive of Fonterra has apologised over a botulism scare that prompted China and Russia to stop importing some diary products from New Zealand.

Dairy giant Fonterra announced on Saturday that products including infant formula and sports drinks could have been contaminated with a bacteria that can cause botulism.

At a press conference today in Beijing, Fonterra's chief executive Theo Spierings offered an apology on behalf of the company to anyone affected by the scare.

"We deeply apologise to the people who have been affected by the issue, to guarantee to you that food safety and safety of the people [...] is our first and foremost interest", he said to the media gathered. 

"We really regret the distress and anxiety which this issue could have caused," he added.

"We totally understand that there is concerns for parents and other consumers around the world. Parents have the right to know that infant nutrition and other diary related products is 100 per cent safe."

In a statement, Fonterra said China has also increased general border inspections of all New Zealand dairy imports.

China has not confirmed any restrictions yet, and the country's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“China has not closed the market to all New Zealand dairy products, it has been quite specific about the range of Fonterra products which it has temporarily suspended,” said Scott Gallacher, acting director-general of the Ministry for Primary Industries. “The Chinese authorities still have a number of questions, which we are wanting to work with them on to respond to.”

The group said they had sold New Zealand-made whey protein concentrate contaminated with Clostridium Botulinum to eight customers, including food and beverage companies and animal stock feed firms.

Fonterra said the contamination occurred as the result of dirty pipes in a Waikato plant in May 2012.According to the company, samples showed a potential bacteria problem in March this year, but it was not until 31 July that testing indicate the presence of a type of bacteria that could lead to botulism.

Asked at the Beijing press conference why it took so long for the problem to show up, Spierings said although the ingredient was produced in 2012, it was only used in making base powder in March this year. At that point, he said, it was retested.

“The supply chain of infant nutrition powders takes a long time because it has many steps and every step is tested very strictly,” he said. “The closer you come to the consumer, the more testing you do.”

Last week, the Ministry of Primary Industries [MPI] confirmed contaminated whey protein concentrate, or products using the ingredient, had been exported to Australia, China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Vietnam.

The MPI said five batches of Karicare formula manufactured in New Zealand for babies aged six months and older were produced using the contaminated product.

Karicare, a popular brand in China, is made by Nutricia, which operates in New Zealand, and supplied by Fonterra.

The MPI said it had been informed by Nutricia that one batch was on a ship, another was in storage in Australia and the remaining three were

Clostridium Botulinum is often found in soil and may have entered because of an unsanitary pipe at a processing plant.

The bacteria can cause botulism, a potentially fatal disease which affects the muscles and can cause respiratory problems. Infant botulism can attack the intestinal system.

Additional reporting by agencies