Friday, July 8, 2022

Potentially deadly bug found in Fonterra whey

Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings has made an emergency dash from Europe to China this weekend to deal with fallout after a virulent bug linked to the deadly botulism toxin was found in whey powder supplied to infant formula makers.

Eight customers supplied with the contaminated whey “are urgently investigating whether any of the affected product, which contains a strain of Clostridium, is in their supply chains,” Spierings said.

“If need be, they will initiate consumer product recalls.”

It was possible products containing the whey had been sent to other markets but no illnesses had been linked to the whey and no Fonterra branded products were involved.

In China Spierings was to meet manufacturers of infant formula and other products who had used the whey.

“We take matters of public health extremely seriously and we are doing everything we can to assist our customers in ensuring any product containing this ingredient is removed from the marketplace and that the public is made aware. We are acting quickly."

 

Theo Spierings

Fonterra

The dairy cooperative is in crisis communications mode as it seeks to do the right thing by notifying eight unnamed customers have received batches of the whey protein concentrate. Fonterra's managing director of New Zealand Milk Products Gary Romano fronted a media conference this morning.

The batch of 38 tonnes of whey came from a Waikato processing plant. It was made in May last year.

Testing regimes did not show up any problems at the time but when Fonterra went to use the product itself in March for its own value added products further testing revealed elevated levels of Clostridium bacteria.

Test results received last Wednesday, July 31, confirmed the presence of Clostridium Botulinum. The bacteria as hundreds of variant forms with affects on milk products ranging from nothing through to food-spoiling and health risks.

“There have been no reports of any illness linked to consumption of the affected whey protein. Dairy products such as fresh milk, yoghurt, cheese, spreads and UHT milk products are not affected,” Spierings said in a statement.

The contamination arose because a "very little-used" piece of pipe was not properly sterilised before a batch of the whey protein, WPC80, was produced, Romano said.

Asked whether there had been disciplinary action taken or systems upgrades to prevent a recurrence, he said the immediate focus was on informing customers and the public of the issue.

Discovery of the Cloridium Botulinum strain was "very rare" in the dairy industry, he said. "Our aim is to have that not happen again."

He confirmed the notification was "one of the reasons" for Spierings travelling to China this weekend but declined to elaborate on the length of time that elapsed between manufacture of the product and the testing which first set alarm bells ringing in March.

The fact that Fonterra had made the discovery was a consequence of the company's rigorous testing regimes, which went beyond the levels required by regulators, Romano said.

Under repeated questioning as to the identity of other affected brands, Romano stressed it was up to the eight customers in question to make their own decisions on how to communicate with their customers.
It was not possible to restrict concerns about the products to any particular territory as they could subsequently have been sent to other markets.

Testing regimes did not show up any problems at the time but when Fonterra went to use the product itself in March for its own value added products further testing revealed elevated levels of Clostridium bacteria.

Fonterra’s approach in calling a media briefing this morning was in stark contrast to the about six months that lapsed between the discovery of tiny traces of a chemical known as DCD, linked to nitrogen inhibitors to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, earlier this year.

“Food safety is Fonterra’s number one priority,” Spierings said.

“We take matters of public health extremely seriously and we are doing everything we can to assist our customers in ensuring any product containing this ingredient is removed from the marketplace and that the public is made aware.

“We are acting quickly.

“Our focus is to get information out about potentially affected product as fast as possible so that it can be taken off supermarket shelves and, where it has already been purchased, can be returned,” Spierings said.

“We are working closely with New Zealand’s regulatory authority – the Ministry for Primary Industries – to keep New Zealand and offshore regulators informed.”

WPC80 is used in a range of products including infant formula, growing up milk powder and sports drinks.

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