Botulism scare milk powder off the shelves

An Abbott Laboratories sales staff checks the serial number of a powder milk tin during a production recall at a milk shop outside Hanoi August 6, 2013. – Reuters pic
An Abbott Laboratories sales staff checks the serial number of a powder milk tin during a production recall at a milk shop outside Hanoi August 6, 2013. – Reuters pic

WELLINGTON, Aug 7 — New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra moved to assure parents today that tainted baby formula which sparked global safety recalls had all been removed from retailer’s shelves.

Products containing a potentially deadly bug which had been distributed from China to Saudi Arabia were no longer in the shops, Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings said.

“All the stocks have been contained, everything is out of the market. It’s in warehouses and there is little or no more risk for consumers,” he told reporters in Auckland.

Authorities have been scrambling to collect cans of formula since Fonterra revealed last Saturday that they contained a whey product contaminated with a bacteria that can cause botulism.

Spierings said there had been no reported cases of children falling sick after consuming the formula but acknowledged the scare had dented Fonterra and New Zealand’s reputation in Asia for producing safe, top-quality foods.

He said Fonterra would investigate the cause of the scare, which has been blamed on a dirty pipe at a North Island processing plant, and seek to restore its brand.

The Auckland-based executive, who flew to Beijing this week to apologise, refused to say whether he should resign over the crisis, which threatens Fonterra’s leading role in China’s multi-billion dollar dairy market.

“It’s not up to me to answer, I will leave that to the board,” he said.

Earlier, Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce said it would be wrong to downplay the impact of the saga on New Zealand, which generates 25 per cent of its exports from dairy products.

“I’ve read some interesting comments in the last 24 hours, people saying it’s not as big as you think, well I beg to differ, it’s very significant,” he told Radio New Zealand.

New Zealand exported more than NZ$13 billion (RM33.4 billion) of dairy products in 2012, with China accounting for almost NZ$3.0 billion, according to official data.

Fonterra has a near-monopoly, handling 89 per cent of the country’s milk production -- 15.4 billion litres in 2011.

But critics have accused it of failing to learn the lesson of a 2008 scandal, when six children died and 300,000 fell ill after a Chinese company it part-owned illegally laced milk with the chemical melamine.

While the company has insisted from the outset that public health is its main priority, Prime Minister John Key is among those who have accused it of being too slow to release information,

Fonterra has confirmed it knew about the contamination on Wednesday, July 31, but the first public notification of the problem was an 11-paragraph statement issued the following Saturday.

The carefully worded statement referred to a “quality issue” and did not reveal the bacteria was in baby formula and could cause botulism until near the end of the document.

It did not contain a list of infant formula brands that parents should avoid or say which countries tainted goods had been shipped to.

Such basic facts took days to trickle out, prompting frustrated New Zealand government officials to send their own people into Fonterra’s offices to dig out the information.

Asked if heads should roll at the company, Joyce replied: “People will certainly be expecting accountability.” – AFP

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