Inquiries go on, but no botulism

HAMISH RUTHERFORD
Last updated 05:00 29/08/2013
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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Fonterra will still face dual investigations over a botulism scare, even though it has turned out to be a false alarm.

Yesterday the Ministry for Primary Industries said fresh testing of Fonterra's products revealed they did not contain Clostridium botulinum as announced on August 3 and which sparked an international scare.

Instead, the whey protein used widely in infant formula contained another form of bacteria which could cause products to spoil, but posed no food safety issue.

On August 2, Fonterra informed the ministry it had discovered a bacteria linked to botulism in a product manufactured 14 months earlier at its Hautapu plant in Waikato.

The resulting scare prompted some trading partners to block some or all New Zealand dairy products, while a major state-run Chinese newspaper wrote a scathing editorial about New Zealand testing standards.

Yesterday the Government, the ministry and Fonterra expressed relief at the findings.

But an investigation into whether the dairy giant breached food safety legislation, and a separate ministerial inquiry into food safety, will continue.

Scott Gallacher, the ministry's acting director-general, said it had taken almost a month to verify the information that Fonterra provided.

While the contamination was not as serious as feared, it was still a hygiene issue.

"Clearly there was something that occurred that should not have occurred at Hautapu and that is something our ongoing investigation is going to get to the bottom of."

The Government too made it clear that Fonterra would still be probed. "We've got a lot of questions still that we haven't got answers to," Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy said, including how long it took Fonterra to raise the alarm and when the problem was first identified.

Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce said the Government was "completely comfortable" with the way it had handled the matter. The dairy giant had raised a serious food safety issue with the PMI, which had no choice but to act.

Earlier this month Prime Minister John Key, who had planned to go to China to present the findings of the inquiries to counterparts there, said there were "gaps" in the information it was being provided with.

Last night Mr Key confirmed the trip would still go ahead.

Fonterra insisted last night that it had acted quickly and properly but appeared to point the finger of blame back at the Government.

In a statement it mentioned four times that its testing was conducted by AgResearch, a Crown Research Institute, and that it was the finding of AgResearch's scientists that led to the issue being raised with the ministry.

Chief executive Theo Spierings said Fonterra "definitely had some questions" about the false positive result.

Last night AgResearch defended its position. "[We] have reviewed our work and we are confident in the work that our experts carried out and reported to Fonterra."

The ministry said the testing for Fonterra would form part of the dual investigations.

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- Fairfax Media

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