Contaminated whey protein 'traced'

ELOISE GIBSON
Last updated 19:03 28/08/2013
Fairfax NZ

Ministers Nathan Guy and Steven Joyce front media after announcing bacteria discovered in Fonterra products earlier this month were never capable of causing botulism.

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A "very, very" relieved Theo Spierings fronted media tonight to confirm a major international product scare over botulism in Fonterra products appears to have been a false alarm.

The Fonterra chief executive could not explain how testing by AgResearch misidentified a bacteria in batches of Fonterra whey products.

Spierings said he was "not there to judge the mistakes of others".

Questions about what went wrong, and whether Fonterra could take legal action against the science company, would be dealt with as part of an internal review.

The dairy co-operative learned at 4pm – the same time as news media – that additional testing for the Ministry for Primary Industries' had cleared Fonterra products of Clostridium botulinum, a bacteria linked to botulism.

Fonterra says it is now in recovery mode, rebuilding its reputation with New Zealand's trading partners.

Spierings said Fonterra "definitely had some questions" about the false positive result, which led to an at-times confusing product recall and a major diplomacy effort to reassure major buyers of New Zealand dairy that other products were safe.

The company was now satisfied there had been no risk of botulism.

However, there appears to be no immediate prospect of reinstating Gary Romano, the former managing director of NZ Milk Products, who quit after the scare.

A decision would be made about two other senior staff who were placed on leave after an internal review by the board, Spierings said.

However, Romano was different because he quit and his resignation was accepted.

AgResearch was commissioned to test milk products for bacteria after Fonterra's internal tests were unable to narrow down the bacteria strain beyond two potential culprits – clostridium botulinum and clostridium sporogenes which can cause food to spoil.

Clostridium sporogenes is not considered a food-safety risk.

The Crown Research Institute now faces hard questions from the dairy giant.

An AgResearch spokesman said under the terms of its contract with Fonterra it was bound by a confidentiality agreement and couldn't discuss specific details. "However, we have reviewed our work and we are confident in the work that our experts carried out and reported to Fonterra."

It is holding discussions with MPI and Fonterra over the issue and was involved in both the Government and Fonterra inquiries.

Spierings said Fonterra was "very, very relieved" at being cleared.

It had had no choice but to alert MPI and start a product recall when initial results appeared to show a risk.

He apologised again to parents who bought affected infant formula for the confusion and anxiety in the first 72 hours after the scare became public. He insisted Fonterra "made the right calls all the way through" but the co-operative acknowledged it could improve its product traceability, transparency of information in the company and processes at its factories.

The Hautapu plant at the centre of the scare had used a different cleaning process from other factories and some equipment that hadn't been used in a while, contributing to the worry when tests appeared to raise alarm.

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The co-operative had a "very firm indication" from AgResearch after its tests showed that the offending strain was the botulism-causing bacteria, he said.

Fonterra will appoint a new group director, food safety and quality who will report directly to the chief executive.

SRI LANKA ALL CLEAR

Fonterra has resumed its consumer operations in Sri Lanka, following a thorough assessment by management that there is no risk to staff and that the situation had now stabilised.

"Last Friday we took the decision to temporarily suspend our Sri Lanka operations to protect our people, and to protect our farmer shareholders' assets,'' Spierings said.

He was now confident staff were safe and the business ready to resume operations.

An enjoining order preventing Fonterra from selling its product in Sri Lanka was overturned by the courts last Friday.

Spierings said Fonterra would continue to work with Sri Lankan and New Zealand Government authorities on a long-term solution to support its Sri Lankan customers, communities and the local dairy sector.

- Stuff

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