Fonterra scare a false alarm

The Ministry for Primary Industries says it has received results confirming that the bacteria found in the whey protein concentrate (WPC) manufactured by Fonterra was not the botulism-causing clostridium botulinum.

"The organism is confirmed as Clostridium sporogenes. It is therefore not capable of producing botulism causing toxins,'' the ministry said in a statement.

"There are no known food safety issues associated with Clostridium sporogenes, although at elevated levels certain strains may be associated with food spoilage,'' it said.

"When MPI received information from Fonterra on August 2 that it had detected Clostridium botulinum in some of its products, I immediately adopted a precautionary approach to protect consumers both here and overseas,'' acting director-general Scott Gallacher said in a statement.

"We needed to act on what we knew at that time. The information we had then said there was a food safety risk to consumers and we moved quickly to address it,'' he said.

At the same time, MPI commissioned a further array of tests to validate the initial results Fonterra reported.

A total of 195 tests using a range of technologies have been conducted in laboratories here and in the USA.

"Results from the most definitive of these tests arrived over night, and were assessed with appropriate technical advice on hand today,'' he said.

The ministry sought additional testing at both local and international laboratories, seeking the "most robust results we could get''.

Scientists used a range of methods - all came back negative for Clostridium botulinum, he said.

MPI said it had informed overseas regulators of these results, and would provide them with a full diagnostic report soon.

Mr Gallacher said testing was done at local and international labs.

He said MPI had today informed overseas regulators of the results.

The Clostidium sporogenes bacteria that was identified did not represent a health risk but was linked to potential food spoilage.

Mr Gallacher said on the back of the results, New Zealand and Fonterra now had a solid and clear platform from which to re-enter overseas markets affected by the scare.

He said the affair showed parents and caregivers could be assured that the NZ Government and regulators would act responsibly and transparently when a potential food safety issue arose.

A failure of hygiene during processing remained a concern for customers incorporating WPC into their products. However, the concern primarily relates to quality and the potential for spoilage when used in foods that support growth of Clostridium sporogenes from spores.

The news that there was no botulism risk from the Fonterra batches of whey would come as a huge relief to consumers around world, as well as to the company and the New Zealand food industry, Food & Grocery Council chief executive Katherine Rich said.

"This is fantastic news. Mum and dad buyers of infant formula around the world will be particularly relieved at this news. There was never a risk to their babies. The food companies involved should be applauded for their decision to do their precautionary recall.

She said while some people would now ask whether the precautionary recalls were a waste of time, the answer was no.

"From a food industry perspective Fonterra did exactly the right thing - they put public safety first,'' she said.

"Fonterra CEO Theo Spierings made the correct and only appropriate call. As other CEOs within the FGC membership would agree, he would have been derelict in his duty as head of a global food company had he not acted so promptly,'' Ms Rich said.

Labour's primary industries spokesman Damien O'Connor called the results a "complete systems failure by the Ministry for Primary Industries''.

'' ... our failure to ensure the highest standards of testing, monitoring and auditing means the damage has been done to New Zealand's international reputation,'' he said.

"This fiasco continues to be a disaster for our clean, green brand. The inability of the ministry's systems means our reputation is always at risk.''

- Addtional reporting Adam Bennett of the New Zealand Herald

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