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Abbott refutes ‘misleading’ infant formula breach allegations

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Infant formula, China, Milk

Abbott infant formula sample tested, Copyright CER Research
Abbott infant formula sample tested, Copyright CER Research
Abbott Laboratories has scoffed at allegations that its infant formula product fails to meet Chinese national health standards, damning the findings as ‘misleading’ and reaffirming its product safety.

The US-headquartered infant formula giant said the findings published by Hong Kong-based CER Research, appeared, “to be deliberately positioned to damage our reputation which Abbott will take all steps to defend.”

CER conducted tests in a German lab on six popular infant formula brands sold in China (four Chinese, two Western) and found all samples failed to reach China’s safety standards.

Of these samples, Abbott’s ‘Similac Stage 1’ infant formula, for 0-6 month old babies, was the worst, according to the report, with a lower whey to casein protein ratio than required and a very high heat treatment intensity.

Not for China

Abbott informed FoodNavigator-Asia in an emailed statement that, “the product referenced and shown in this report was not produced for the Chinese market and not sold in China and therefore inevitably has different specifications as China requirements are unique.”

“Accordingly the findings and conclusions in the report are misleading,”​ it said.

“While we are still working to understand the specifics of the report and obtain details from CER, Abbott fully refutes any allegation of safety or quality contained in the report,”​ it continued.

Abbott also raised concern over the scientific methodology, objectivity and balance of the report and pointed out that none of the other five brand samples were named.

CER Research CEO Graham Earnshaw said all six samples were sourced from retail outlets across mainland China and Hong Kong in December 2011 and sent to the German food testing laboratory, Muva Kempten, in February 2012.

The Abbott sample was taken from retail giant Watsons in Hong Kong on December 16, 2011.

‘Surprising’ results

“The initial aim of the research was to test the quality of Chinese infant formula brands against Western brands, using Abbott as a benchmark for quality,”​ he said, and so “we were really surprised when Abbott tested the worst out of the six samples.”

Data analysis has only been conducted on the Abbott sample so far as the results seemed to “cry out”​, Earnshaw said, but noted, “the other five companies all failed” ​but were subject to further tests.

“We fully intend to analyse and name all five companies… we could have more information on the samples to release in two or three weeks,”​ he added.

'I would not give this formula to my children'

Chinese safety standards stipulate infant formula products must have a 60%/40% ratio of whey to casein protein. Abbott’s sample had a 41%/59% whey to casein ratio.

Dr Didier Dupont, research director of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), who examined the results, said that the whey to casein ratio was below accepted international standards and showed an “extremely high”​ level of protein breakdown (denaturation).

“Given the test result, the whey/casein ratio for this sample is not adapted for 0-6 month-old infants…personally, I would not give this formula to my children,”​ DuPont said.

High intake of casein protein has been linked with intestinal bleeding, malnutrition, diarrhoea and kidney stress among infants, CER pointed out.

Dr Scott Rankin, chair of the Food Science Department at the US Madison University said, “regardless of the intention of the manufacturer, a product that does not meet the Chinese standards is in violation. Such a violation on any required component could result in a substantial recall process.”

Rankin added that the Abbott sample also had the “highest degree of thermal treatment of the samples,”​ and “would rank near the lowest in terms of nutritional value.”

Abbott countered that quality is its first priority and its products undergo rigorous testing and are developed to, “meet or exceed the standards for healthy and safe infant growth set in each country”.

It added that it, “has worked with and continues to work with the Chinese Government in the development and enhancement of food safety standards.”

Testing details

The samples were tested for protein using the Kjeidahl method - a whey/casein ratio test using the electrophoretic methods as well as a test of denaturation of beta-lactoglobulin using the electrophoretic method.

Secondary tests were conducted at DTS Food Laboratories in Australia, confirming initial findings from the German laboratory.

Full details of the research can be found here​.

CER has submitted the test results and report findings to the Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Quality and Technical Supervision and the Administration of Quality and Technology Supervision in Guangdong province, both of which have confirmed receipt and are looking into the case.

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