The recent Fonterra whey protein concentrate (WPC) botulism scare was “not the result of any regulatory failure,” a New Zealand government inquiry into the incident has concluded.
The report examined whether "a crisis or failure" of the country's dairy food safety regulations were to blame for the August 2013 incident, which began when Fonterra warned eight customers that three batches of WPC potentially contaminated with botulism-causing Clostridium botulinum had entered he supply chain.
In response, Fonterra customers, including Danone-owned Dumex and Nutricia, initiated recalls across New Zealand, Asia, and the Middle East. Tests later revealed that the bacteria in the recall batches were a non-toxic Clostridium strain.
Commenting, New Zealand Minister for Primary Industries, Nathan Guy, raised hopes that the report findings will renew confidence in the country's food safety system.
“This is a finding of fundamental importance to reassure our off-shore markets,” said Guy.
“Exports to China have trebled since 2007. On top of that, food safety requirements and systems are continuing to evolve.”
“New Zealand’s export performance depends heavily on the success of the dairy sector and we are committed to ensuring its underpinning food safety system remains world-leading," he added.
On the back of the report, the New Zealand government has pledged between NZ$8m (US$6.6m) and NZ$12m (US$9.9m) per year to finance a number of recommendations, including the establishment of a food safety science and research centre.
The report also suggested that an investment be made in personnel to strengthen New Zealand’s capabilities in China and other emerging export markets, and that money be ploughed into fast-tracking work to consolidate and simplify legislation and regulations.
Fonterra CEO, Theo Spierings, has welcomed the report’s findings and recommendations, which he believes will “help further strengthen New Zealand’s robust food safety regulatory system.”
“The independent endorsement of the quality of New Zealand’s food safety framework is a welcome contribution following the WPC80 precautionary recall,” said Spierings.
“We have learned critical lessons from what has been a difficult experience, and the findings of this forward-looking review are an important step in our own reputational rebuild. It is encouraging that many of the recommendations are in line with our own conclusions about the robustness of New Zealand’s food production and safety systems,” Spierings added.
Measure of credibility
The Infant Formula Council (INC), which represents major manufacturers and marketers of infant formula in Australia and New Zealand including affected Fonterra customer, Nutricia, has heralded the report as proof that parents around the world can put their faith in the safety of the country's infant formula industry.
“It is a measure of the credibility of the industry that it moved so quickly to prevent even the slightest possibility of risk back in August,” said Jan Carey, CEO of the INC.
“The most important message, as is highlighted in this report, is that New Zealand continues to produce high quality products under world leading food safety systems.”
Meanwhile, Willy Leferink, Federated Farmers dairy chairperson said that while the report “puts some minds at ease… it also highlights the need for a stronger food safety system and a stronger understanding of the markets we deal with.”
“If our dairy industry is to continue to go from strength to strength, we need to invest more into the framework of how we operate here and overseas. As we diversify into foreign markets, we need people that understand them.”
But, the detailed investment will "go a long way to building" the country's reputation overseas, Leferink added.