Fonterra in breach of food-safety protocol

Fonterra breached its safety plan by failing to tell officials it had discovered a food-safety issue, delaying the Government response to the botulism scare by a full day.

Under its risk management plan, when Fonterra discovers a food-safety issue it is required to inform AsureQuality, a government-owned food-safety company, within 24 hours.

Fonterra confirmed on Wednesday that Clostridium botulinum, a bacteria linked to botulism, was in a concentrated whey product but did not inform the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) until Friday afternoon.

AsureQuality chief executive Michael Thomas said his organisation was not informed until Friday, after MPI and a day after what was required.

"They [Fonterra] haven't followed protocol," Mr Thomas said.

Once informed of food-safety issues, AsureQuality has another 24 hours to pass the information on to MPI.

MPI acting director-general Scott Gallacher confirmed last night that Fonterra was meant to tell AsureQuality within 24 hours but this did not happen.

Fonterra has already faced criticism over delays in revealing the contamination scare, but until now the Government and officials have simply said questions over timing would form part of an inquiry, rather than giving details on the delay.

Fonterra refused to comment about the timeliness of its contact with AsureQuality last night.

"Any questions around timings and notifications will be addressed as part of our internal review," spokesman Gary Romano said in a statement.

Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings defended the timeliness of its reaction in his first appearance since returning from China.

"I think in these specific circumstances, with the complexity of the bacteria group we're talking about, that is pretty fast."

Mr Spierings apologised to the country for the food scare episode, saying he understood "the anxiety and distress this issue has caused".

Fonterra faced a fresh drama yesterday, when it was fined about $900,000 for its part in a price-fixing investigation by the China National Development and Reform Commission.

In Parliament, Green Party co-leader Russel Norman continued to question Prime Minister John Key on whether Fonterra should have continued using products that had tested positive to Clostridium back in March.

Mr Key said he did not know how unusual it was for Clostridium to be discovered in dairy products, but the chain of events was "odd".

"I can't tell you whether that should have waved lots of red flags, or none whatsoever. That's what an inquiry will show us, but I do think it's a bit odd that the tests showed something in March . . . and production carried on," Mr Key said in Parliament.

A spokesman for MPI said they could not yet identify how often Clostridium was detected in milk products - even in general terms - because doing so would require searching a major database.

Meanwhile it appears New Zealand has no medication to treat botulism, but that instances are extremely rare.

Dr Pat Tuohy, chief adviser on child health at the Health Ministry, said there had been no cases of infant botulism in New Zealand for the past 20 years.

Anti-toxin was not kept in New Zealand because it degraded, but could be sourced within 24 to 48 hours and could shorten the duration and severity of the illness.

BusinessDay.co.nz