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Retract report, restore reputation or face legal action, Abbott tells CER

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

Abbott-CER dispute steps up: Legal action threatened...
Abbott-CER dispute steps up: Legal action threatened...

Related tags: Infant formula, Hong kong, Mainland china, China

Infant formula maker Abbott Laboratories has demanded that CER Research retract the ‘utterly misleading’ and ‘false’ report suggesting one of its products fails to meet Chinese national standards and also take steps to restore Abbott’s reputation globally.

The US-headquartered infant formula giant has threatened legal action if CER does not respond accordingly.

The report entitled, ‘Abbott Laboratories Similac Stage 1; A first step towards malnutrition’​, drawn from a wider project investigating six infant formula brands (four Chinese, two Western), suggested that while all six sampled failed to reach China’s safety standards, Abbott’s product tested the worst.

Abbott refuted the report last week​ and said it appeared to be “deliberately positioned to damage our reputation,”​ an accusation Graham Earnshaw, CEO of CER Research claims is false.

In a series of legal letters, Chinese lawyers representing Abbott have demanded the immediate removal of the report and that a public apology be made conceding it is false along with measures taken to repair Abbott’s damaged reputation.

It appears however, that CER is not budging and Earnshaw confirmed receipt of the first letter and said his company had responded with; “we stand by our report”.

He told FoodNavigator-Asia that CER had also said it would be delighted to clarify report details and “speak to Abbott in depth in terms of how to resolve this.”

Scrambling for the exit…

Since the report’s publication, key experts involved in analysing data attained from the German laboratory, Muva Kempten, have requested their names and comments be removed.

Abbott has retrieved statements from four of the six involved, including one from Dr Scott Rankin who said he does not support the issuing of the report. “I am not aware of any data that justifies such a headline [and] was not asked to review or comment on their [CER] report,” ​he said.

Dr Didier DuPont told Abbott he felt “betrayed”​ as CER has refused to remove his name and affiliation from the report. DuPont said he had not been informed that his “general comments”​ would be used in a report and he “never authorised them [CER] to make public my comments, name and affiliation in their report.”

“There is clearly a scramble for the exit here and I can only speculate as to why,”​ Earnshaw said, “the experts involved are interested in distancing themselves from the report,”​ and this is “unfortunate”.

Email contact has been made with Scott Rankin, a paid consultant of CER Research, he said, and it is clear that he is unhappy with the headline of the final report; wording Earnshaw admitted in hindsight was possibly not the best choice.

“It was written to achieve visability. We are not saying that the product causes malnutrition,”​ he said, “but the key here is not the headline, it’s the results.”

A CER statement issued on March 25 outlined that “there is an important distinction to be made between withdrawing remarks and denying them. We have a record of all comments included by all named individuals in the report.”

Different markets, different specs

Jacob Jiang, business analyst at China Market Research (CMR), said that mainland China and Hong Kong operate under separate safety standards systems for food, with Hong Kong requirements similar to international standards.

Abbott has said the product tested was intended and thus formulated for Hong Kong, not China and manufacturing is separate, with the Hong Kong product made in Ireland and the China product in Singapore.

“However, infant formula is in some ways a special case, since Hong Kong is a major location for mainland Chinese to buy formula for their children, due to concerns about the products on sale on the mainland,”​ Jiang said.

“Brands need to be aware that they are selling to both markets at the same time, and have mainland consumers’ concerns in mind even for products they sell in Hong Kong,”​ he added.

Earnshaw said that for Abbott “to simply say that Chinese standards are not relevant is disingenuous.”

The implication is that there is a difference between Abbott’s Chinese and Hong Kong infant formula products, he said, but consumers are going to want to know how the products differ and which is superior in terms of safety and quality. Abbott will need to clarify all of this, he added.

Abbott said it is re-testing its China and Hong KongSimilac Stage 1product to ensure “it continues to meet regulatory standards.”

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