New Zealand’s Ministry of Primary Industries have confirmed the scare surrounding contaminated whey protein concentrate supplied by dairy giant Fonterra was a false alarm.
Rather than finding the bacteria that is known to cause botulism during additional testing, MPI’s results show the agent to be Clostridium sporogenes, which is not capable of producing the toxins that can cause the life-threatening infection.
There are no known food safety issues associated with Clostridium sporogenes, although at elevated levels certain strains may be associated with food spoilage.
Ministry was justified
MPI’s acting director-general, Scott Gallacher, justified the ministry's actions at the start of August when Fonterra first revealed it had detected C. botulinum in some of its products.
“I immediately adopted a precautionary approach to protect consumers both here and overseas,” Gallacher said. “We needed to act on what we knew at that time. The information we had then said there was a food safety risk to consumers and we moved quickly to address it.”
At the same time, MPI commissioned a further array of tests to validate the initial results Fonterra reported. A total of 195 tests using a range of technologies were conducted in laboratories in New Zealand and abroad.
“All came back negative for Clostridium botulinum,” said Gallacher, adding that the ministry has informed overseas regulators of the results.
Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings said the company was relieved that the product was not contaminated, and it had done the right thing by initiating a precautionary recall.
Speaking to press at Fonterra's headquarters in Auckland, the Dutchman said: "Food safety remains our number one priority."
"The original results from AgResearch indicated the presence of toxin-producing Clostridium botulinum in the affected whey protein concentrate and we could therefore not take any chances."
Fonterra had originally commissioned independent testing from AgResearch, the Crown Research Institute, as one of only two research facilities in New Zealand capable of carrying out testing for Clostridium botulinum.
"On the basis of the results we received from the AgResearch tests, we had no choice but to alert regulators, and announce a global precautionary recall with our customers," Spierings continued.
"We have just learned of the further and definitive test results. While we share a sense of relief about them, this in no way lessens our commitment to undertaking a thorough review into what happened, and to learn from this experience."
Labour's Primary Industries spokesman, Damien O'Connor, branded the MPI's announcement that no botulism was found "a complete systems failure by the Ministry of Primary Industries".
"[The] failure to ensure the highest standards of testing, monitoring and auditing means the damage has been done to New Zealand's international reputation," he said.
"While New Zealand was right to take an immediately precautionary approach, "our international competitors will be laughing all the way to the bank."
Fonterra had earlier made an urgent plea to MPI to release the results to quell growing speculation and clear the company’s name, which has been dragged through the hedge for most of the month. For its part, MPI issued a release just minutes after Fonterra's appeal for the testing results.
Last week, the company admitted that 42 tonnes of milk powder had been stopped at the border in China in May because of high nitrite levels
Spierings said: “There is too much at stake for New Zealand, its exporters, Fonterra, its customers, and consumers for MPI to delay if there is any foundation to the rumours.”
He added that as a result of Fonterra’s precautionary recall, there is still uncertainty in a number of markets, and product remains held at some borders.
Earlier today, Fonterra acknowledged that some of its milk powder products had been held up in Bangladesh, where it had been undergoing chemical testing. It is believed the delay involves a 600 tonne consignment, and followed Bangladeshi Ministry of Commerce officials asking customs to exercise caution in releasing Fonterra products from Chittagong port.
Sri Lanka resumption
Meanwhile, Fonterra will resume its consumer operations in Sri Lanka after deciding there is now no risk to Fonterra staff there after angry consumer protests last week led the company to suspend operations.
Fonterra had called the move, which was sparked by a demonstration by around 200 members of the public at the company's head office near Columbo, "a precautionary step... because of the unstable situation at the moment".
Spierings said: “Last Friday we took the decision to temporarily suspend our Sri Lanka operations to protect our people, and to protect our farmer shareholders’ assets.
“I am now confident that our people are safe and the business is ready to resume operations.”
An enjoining order that had prevented Fonterra from selling its products in Sri Lanka, was overturned in the Gampaha District Court last Friday.
Spierings said Fonterra would continue to work with Sri Lankan and New Zealand governments on a long-term sustainable solution to support its Sri Lankan customers, communities and the local dairy sector.