Fonterra E coli cream recall not ideal - Feds

LAURA WALTERS AND STACEY KIRK
Last updated 14:53 14/01/2014
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The timing of Fonterra's cream product recall is not ideal but it shows systems work, Federated Farmers says.

Fonterra said today a batch of fresh cream supplied to Anchor and Pams was contaminated with E coli but it is not known how many of the 9000 bottles were affected. The cause was being investigated.

The dairy giant last night announced a voluntary recall of 300 millilitre and 500ml bottles of Anchor and Pams fresh cream with a best-before date of January 21, 2014, distributed in the North Island from Northland to Turangi, including Gisborne.

Federated Farmers dairy chairman Willy Leferink said the voluntary recall showed Fonterra's quality assurance systems worked.

"While the timing is far from ideal given what went on last year [the botulism scare], this is a voluntary recall initiated by Fonterra's own testing," he said.

Leferink said he hoped it showed consumers that a company owned by thousands of New Zealand farmers put food safety first. The fact Fonterra's own testing led to the recall showed the company was a "responsive and responsible" food processor, he said.

A Fonterra spokesman said the contamination had been traced to Fonterra's processing plant at Takanini in South Auckland. It is the largest processing site in the country for Fonterra Brands New Zealand, employing 600 people and is also home to the company's head office.

This was a different plant to where the dairy giant's botulism contamination scare occurred last year.

Fonterra Brands managing director Peter McClure told Radio NZ the E coli was "very unlikely" to have come in with the milk from the farms and it was "almost impossible" that the contamination could have been deliberate.

However, he said he did not want to speculate on how the contamination happened.

McClure said E coli contaminations were "very rare" and this was the first time in at least 18 years that a Fonterra product had tested positive for the bacteria.

Fonterra said it would not know how many bottles of cream had been returned until next week.

So far, the company had received a few calls from customers asking what to do if they felt ill after consuming the cream but more calls were expected now the story was in the media, Fonterra said.

According to the Fonterra website, the Takanini factory also produces milk, UHT and cultured dairy food.

The factory's core product is fresh milk and the site's seven filling lines package more than 298,000 litres of fresh milk a day and can produce about 6.4 bottles a second.

McClure told Radio NZ: "We wouldn't want this at any time and certainly now is not a good time for us either, but we're doing everything we can.

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"I think our consumers have stuck with us and they will continue to do so because they know the standards we maintain." The 8700 bottles of cream had been distributed to shops and restaurants.

Foodstuffs group communications manager Jo Jalfon said this morning that the company, which owns New World, Pak'nSave and Four Square, had received a few calls from customers asking questions about the contamination and recall but there had not been any reports of illness.

Jalfon said the product would have "largely sold through" by now and had probably been consumed by customers.

Customers had not returned any of the affected products to the company early this morning.

The recall does not affect any other Anchor or Pams products.

Consumers are advised not to consume the product and to return it to where they bought it for a refund.

The E coli contamination follows a major botulism scare for Fonterra last year which led to thousands of infant formula products being recalled.

The scare, which eventually proved to be baseless, damaged confidence in New Zealand dairy products, and last week French food giant Danone said it had withdrawn its supply contract with Fonterra and had was seeking compensation through the New Zealand High Court after identifying €300 million (NZ$490m) in anticipated business losses for the 2013 financial year.

Fonterra Shareholders' Council chairman Ian Brown said the contamination was a "reality of life" and it appeared Fonterra was being "very proactive" by announcing the possible contamination last night.

"I think farmers will absolutely applaud that," he said.

CREDIBILITY ISSUE

Food Safety Minister Nikki Kaye says the latest recall of Fonterra products needs to be kept in perspective.

"This is a domestic product recall," she said.

''Fonterra have advised Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) that one plant is involved and that none of the potentially affected product has been exported."

Media in Britain, China and the United States have reported on the recall.

A spokesman for the Minister for Primary Industries' office said Nathan Guy was on holiday with his family and unable to be reached, but Kaye said she was keeping him informed of the situation.

Labour's primary industries spokesman Damien O'Connor said the credibility of New Zealand's food safety system had again been brought into doubt.

"Fonterra appears to have used the appropriate testing systems which picked up the dangerous bacteria E coli and have taken precautionary action, as is appropriate," he said.

"However the timing of food testing and the accuracy of information provided to companies such as Fonterra needs further scrutiny.

"The Government has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars through its Primary Growth Partnership fund, yet areas of food safety and science continue to be under-resourced and not up to international best practice."

O'Connor said an independent Food Safety Authority - which at present sits within the Ministry for Primary Industries - was the only way to ensure proper scrutiny of food production.

Kaye, referring to last year's botulism scare, said there was already an independent ministerial inquiry underway, and while part of that had now been completed, MPI still had to finish its compliance investigation.

"MPI has advised me that they expect to report back on this in the next few weeks," she said.

A report from the Ministerial Inquiry on New Zealand's Dairy Food Safety Regulatory System found New Zealand's food safety regulatory model was consistent with international principles and among the best in the world, Kaye said.

"The Government accepted in principle all 29 recommendations of their report and will allocate additional funds to ensure these recommendations can be acted upon."

She would not comment on court proceedings with Danone as it was a "commercial matter" between the two companies.

SECOND SCARE

An unrelated E coli contamination has led Deep South Ice Cream to issue a voluntary product recall on Friday.

Deep South co-owner and director Mike Killick said the company found E coli on a piece of equipment in its plant.

However, none of its ice creams had tested positive for E coli.

Killick and Fonterra both said the contaminations were unrelated and Fonterra did not sell cream to Deep South.

- Stuff

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