Fonterra botulism scare a global false alarm

Tests show botulism scare was unfounded.

Fonterra products which sparked a global food safety scare did not contain the bacteria that causes botulism and not considered a food safety risk, the Ministry for Primary Industries has confirmed.

In a media briefing this afternoon, the MPI said the bacteria found in the products is clostridium sporogenes, not clostridium botulinum. 

Products which contained the contaminated whey protein, including some infant formula products, were pulled from the shelves earlier this month as a result of the scare.

A number of countries imposed restrictions on New Zealand milk products as a result.

It also cost the job of Fonterra executive Gary Romano, who fronted the company’s response to the scare, while two other staff have been placed on leave.

Earlier today Fonterra urged the MPI to release its findings.

Chief executive Theo Spierings said, “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 said that 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 added that any new information has a potential major economic impact.

“MPI has confirmed to us that it has received preliminary results from the additional testing it commissioned.

“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,” he said.

A total of 195 tests were conducted in the US and New Zealand, MPI said. Some of the results came back overnight.

Fonterra is holding its own media briefing at 5pm today, having clearly been riled by the lack of test results in the published MPI report. Mr Speirings said it wanted the results published because rumours had been circulating that they were negative for clostridium botulinum.

MPI said a failure of hygiene during processing "remains a concern for customers incorporating WPC into their products." Clostridium sporogenes at elevated levels can be associated with food spoilage.

The ministry's "Whey Protein Concentrate Incident Tracing and Verification Report" concludes that the contamination affected only the last three days of the 2012 season WPC80 manufacture on May 17, 18 and 22, 2012.

Investigations by ministry officials "strongly suggest" no other ingredients or products were contaminated. A temporary pipe identified as the cause of the contamination has been decommissioned.

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

“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.

“Some people will now be asking whether these welcomed test results mean the precautionary recalls were a waste of time. The answer is: absolutely not.

“From a food industry perspective Fonterra did exactly the right thing – they put public safety first."

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