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No botulism bacteria found in Fonterra whey

Wednesday 28 Aug 2013 4:29 p.m.

The Ministry for Primary Industries has confirmed the bacteria found in the contaminated whey protein concentrate is not the bacteria known to cause botulism.

Results show it is instead Clostridium sporogenes, which is not capable of producing botulism-causing toxins.

The ministry says there are no known food safety issues associated with Clostridium sporogenes, though at elevated levels some strains can be associated with food spoilage.

Acting director-general Scott Gallacher says the ministry immediately took a precautionary approach when Fonterra said it found Clostridium botulinum in some of its products "to protect consumers both here and overseas".

"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."

A total of 195 tests using a range of technologies were conducted in laboratories in New Zealand and in the USA. Results from the most definitive of the tests arrived overnight, and were assessed with appropriate technical advice on hand today, Mr Gallacher says.

All tests done came back with negative results for Clostridium botulinum.

Mr Gallacher says the ministry has informed overseas regulators of the test results and will also give them a full diagnostic report soon.

Meanwhile the report by MPI, released today, details the tracing and verification of the potentially contaminated whey protein.

It lays out the approach the ministry, along with its partners, adopted to find all contaminated product in the wake of the scare on August 2.

All potentially affected product has been accounted for, assessed as being low risk or is contained in a number of different countries, the report says.

Fonterra defends recall

Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings is defending the precuationary product recall saying food safety is the company's top priority.

"On the basis of the results we received from the AgResearch tests, we had no choice but to alert regulators, and announce a global precautionary recall with our customers."

"I truly believe that in initiating the recall, we took the right decision and did the right thing at the most critical moment. Given the same circumstances, and with food safety always front of mind, I would do the same again."

Mr Spierings, however, apologised for the confusion and anxiety from the complexity of the recall.

He says since the flag was first raised about the possibility of Clostridium botulinum, the situation had been "very difficult" for parents in a number of countries as well as customers, farmers and staff.

The company has since created a new role of group director of food safety and quality which reports directly to Mr Spierings.

Earlier today, Fonterra made a formal and urgent request to MPI to release initial results from the additional testing.

Mr Spierings says the request was in response to "growing speculation in New Zealand and overseas".

"There is too much at stake for New Zealand, its exporters, Fonterra, its customers, and consumers for MPI to delay if there is any foundation to the rumours."

Mr Spierings says as a result of Fonterra's precautionary recall, there is still uncertainty in a number of markets, and product remains held at some borders. He says any new information has a potential major economic impact.

"We are now asking MPI to provide immediate clarification on the test results they have received to date to ensure that markets and stakeholders can be informed," Mr Spierings says.

Relief for consumers

The Food and Grocery Council says the findings are a "huge relief" to consumers around the world.

Chief executive Katherine Rich says it will also be welcome news to Fonterra as well as the New Zealand's food industry.

"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," she says.

Mr Spierings made the "correct and only appropriate call" about issuing the product recall, she says.

"Faced with positive test results from Crown Research Institute AgResearch, Fonterra had no choice – morally, ethically, or commercially - but to issue a full recall of the batches in question to eliminate all possibility of risk to consumers."

The council hoped the scare and the ensuing "economic disaster" was not based on inadequate science.

Results show system failure - Labour

Labour's Primary Industries spokesman Damien O'Connor says the revelations show a "complete systems failure" by MPI.

He is glad the scare amounted to nothing and consumers had been harmed as a result.

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

"If New Zealand is to be the exporter of the world’s finest goods, it needs testing systems of the highest quality."

The scare was a result of the creation of MPI which merged the Ministries of Agriculture and Forestry, Fisheries, Biosecurity New Zealand and the New Zealand Food Safety Authority, he says.

Questions remain over testing

The Green Party says the announcement throws up more questions about testing regimes.

Co-leader Russel Norman says MPI and Fonterra need to investigate how the botch-up happened.

"Why was MPI able to test the product for the bacterium in less than a month whereas it took Fonterra three months and it now seems that they came up with an incorrect result?

"This new twist in the story is further evidence that we need strong regulations, and can’t leave this sort of monitoring up to private companies."

The country's reputation had taken "a real beating" through the contamination scare as well as the global product recall, he says.

Mr Gallacher says more investigations are underway to help the ministry understand how the situation occurred and what lessons can be learned.

There have been no confirmed reports of illness of any kind related to these batches of whey protein concentrate anywhere in the world.

Last week MPI announced interim measures ahead of the outcome of the reviews into scare including:

  • Lift the regulatory presence in manufacturing premises
  • Lift the level of and nature of testing across dairy production to improve the identification of non-compliance issues
  • Run tracing simulations to test the capability of the industry to rapidly track and trace product through their supply chains
  • Increase reviews of the risk management plans dairy producers have for manufacturing facilities.

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