CAMBRIDGE, NEW ZEALAND (TV3 (NEW ZEALAND)) - New Zealand's Fonterra, the world's largest dairy exporter, on Saturday (August 03) said it had found that an ingredient in some of its dairy productscontained a strain of a bacteria which can cause botulism, prompting China to recall affected products.
The company said it had notified the eight customers which purchased New Zealand-made whey protein concentrate contaminated with Clostridium Botulinum, and may have used the ingredient in the production of infant formula, sports drinks, and other products.
China, which imports the majority of its milk powder products from New Zealand, asked domestic importers to recall any products which may have been contaminated by the bacteria, and ramped up scrutiny of New Zealand dairyproducts coming into the country.
Fonterra said that it was up to individual companies to announce recalls if necessary.
It is the second dairy contamination issue involving New Zealand's largest company this year. In January, Fonterra said it had found traces of dicyandiamide, a potentially toxic chemical used in fertiliser, in some of its products.
The announcement comes as Fonterra is planning to launch its own brand of milk formula in China, five years after its involvement in a 2008 scandal in which melamine-tainted infant formula killed at least six and made thousands ill.
"We are very, very concerned about human health and we are doing everything possible to minimise exposure. I want to talk about people rather than brands," Gary Romano, managing director of New Zealand milk products at Fonterra, said.
China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantinesaid on Saturday that it had asked New Zealand to take immediate measures to "prevent the products in question from harming the health of Chinese consumers."
"The administration has also asked importers to immediately recall any possibly contaminated products and has required all local quarantine and inspection bodies to further strengthen inspection and supervision of New Zealand dairy productsexported to China," it said in a statement.
Clostridium Botulinum is a bacteria often found in soil, and the Fonterra case was caused by an unsanitary pipe at one of the company's processing plants.
The bacteria can cause botulism, a potentially fatal disease which affects the muscles and can cause respiratory problems. Infant botulism is a common form of botulism, which can attack the intestinal system.
The company is a big supplier of wholesale milk powder to Chinese dairy firms and is known to supply multinational food and beverage companies. Fonterra said that of the eight companies affected, three were food companies, two were beverage companies and three manufactured animal stock feed.
The Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) said that it had been told by Fonterra that the products in question were exported to Australia, China, Malaysia, Vietnam,Thailand and Saudi Arabia. The MPI also said it was working with the company and it's customers to identify products which posed risks.
"Over the last 24 hours things have been very fluid. Information has been changing on a rapid basis as we try to get to grips with exactly the situation and scenario that we are dealing with," said Scott Gallacher, acting MPI director general.
Fonterra said there had been no reports of any illness linked to the affected whey protein, and that fresh milk, yoghurt, cheese, spreads and UHT milk products were not affected.
The announcement comes just as China has started to tighten dairy import regulations to improve its overall food safety standards. In the past month or so,Beijing has introduced new regulations restricting the operations of smaller infant formula brands.
Foreign branded infant formula is a prized commodity in China, where consumers are distrustful of domestic brands after a series of food safety scandals. This has created a lucrative market for foreign brands including global heavyweights Nestle, Danone, and Mead Johnson.
The company had held a stake in Chinese dairy company Sanlu, which collapsed after it was discovered to have added melamine to bulk up its formulas. The New Zealand producer was criticised for failing to blow the whistle sooner and more loudly.
Fonterra processes the vast majority of milk produced in New Zealand, whose dairy sector generates more than 7 percent of the country's GDP.