Key questions delay over determining botulism threat

TRACY WATKINS AND PETER WATSON
Last updated 13:00 05/08/2013

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Prime Minister John Key has questioned why Fonterra waited so long to sound the alarm on a botulism scare affecting products including baby formula.

A dirty pipe is being blamed for the threat to New Zealand's multibillion-dollar dairy trade as a block on New Zealand dairy products widens over fears of contamination.

Today was not the time for recriminations, Mr Key said, but he questioned why Fonterra waited until Friday to alert authorities that some products, including infant formula, might be at risk after it found a whey product could contain a bacteria linked to botulism.

Tests first alerted Fonterra to a potential problem in March. The product was manufactured more than a year ago, in May 2012.

Nelson dairy farmers also say Fonterra will have some tough questions to answer over its handling of the botulism scare.

Federated Farmers Nelson dairy spokesman Martin O'Connor said it was too early to know whether the co-operative had acted soon enough to identify the threat and to inform the public, but farmers would want to "get to the bottom of it and find out what really happened".

The implications for trade and public health were "pretty scary" and it could have a major economic impact on Fonterra's share price and milk payout if the ban on its dairy products by China and Russia continued for any length of time, he said.

"Fonterra's whole reputation is based on food safety, so it's fairly alarming for them and for me as a shareholder."

Farmers were in for a nervous few weeks, he said. "Nothing is guaranteed."

Murchison dairy farmer Dave Field said farmers generally had a lot of faith in Fonterra, but it seemed "a bit odd" that it took so long to pick up the botulism threat.

"Normally with heat treatment, pasteurisation and powder drying, you would think something like this wouldn't happen, so I think they need to come up with some better systems and reassure the public what they have done to fix the problem."

He supported the need for an inquiry once the crisis was over, saying people needed to know the right decisions were made.

Mr Field, who has young children, said Fonterra also needed to come up with a lot of information for worried parents.

Sonya Briggs, Plunket's Nelson area manager, said its PlunketLine had been inundated with calls at the weekend and extra staff had been put on to cope with the demand. "We understand the stress this is causing new parents and encourage them to call Plunketline to get the most up-to-date information."

The Ministry for Primary Industries today issued an assurance that there had been no cases of infant botulism in New Zealand linked to the product.

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Mr Key said this morning that "the single most-important thing for Fonterra is that consumers have confidence in their products and that's all about food safety.

"So when you're feeding your baby an infant baby formula product, you have to, as a mother, have absolute confidence that your child will be safe and healthy after that feed."

The Government had assembled a team of more than 60 people to work on gathering information at the weekend and the warnings about infant formula had been "very precautionary", he said.

"The Ministry for Primary Industries is casting a wider net, because we can't be absolutely sure of all the information they have, so it's better to be safe than sorry."

There might be good reasons for Fonterra's delay in notifying the Government, he said.

Initial testing showed a problem, but it was "clearly not enough to make Fonterra say, ‘You can't use that product'.

"But when you've got a company that's our largest company, our largest brand, our largest exporter, that is the flagship for New Zealand, and your whole business is about food safety and food quality, you think they'd take such a precautionary view of these things and say if it's testing for some reason in an odd way, [the product] would just be discarded till they're absolutely sure it's right."

The repercussion from international trading partners has been immediate, with a number recalling products and some blocking all New Zealand dairy imports.

The New Zealand dollar today opened 1 cent lower than its Friday close against the US dollar and is trading down against the Australian dollar.

- The Nelson Mail

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