After  tons of its whey protein concentrate used in baby formula was found to be contaminated with potentially deadly botulism, the chairman of a New Zealand dairy cooperative immediately flew to China to answer questions from the Chinese dairy industry and government officials. Fonterra Chairman John Wilson’s decision to answer Beijing’s questions before those gathering in New Zealand’s capital of Wellington helps to illustrate the new role food safety is playing in the world. Speaking in teleconference for the cooperative’s 10,600 farmer members, Wilson said he remained in China until all questions from Fonterra’s customers and government officials were answered. He said such transparency would pay back dividends down the road. “The risk was small, but you did not hide it,” Wilson says Chinese officials told him. The week-long crisis is winding down for Fonterra, but formal inquiries by both the government of New Zealand and the cooperative are just getting underway. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key on Monday announced that the government’s investigation would be conducted at the ministerial level. The New Zealand Ministry will conduct a separate inquiry for Primary Industries. Key wants the ministerial-level inquiry into the botulism scare completed by the end of the year, when he will travel to China to deliver the findings and to follow up on Wilson’s assurances. State media in China have criticized Fonterra for being slow to respond, but the world’s largest exporter of dairy products denies that charge. The 38 tons of concentrated whey was produced in May 2010, then stored in a warehouse before 20 tons was sold to outside customers. Fonterra had the 18 tons under its control contained within 24 hours and took 72 hours to round up the 20 tons that was outside its supply chain. Based in Auckland, NZ , Fonterra has grown in a decade into a $19-billion business after being formed from a merger in 2003. Its recall of concentrated whey sent ripples across Asia and forced a major customer, Danone, to recall some of its baby formula products. However, it does not appear that the botulism scare will result in any illnesses or loss of life. Fonterra executives say stainless steel piping that was cleaned but then went unused was responsible for the contamination. At this point, they are not exactly sure why. “We know what happened. I would like to know why,” Wilson told his coop members. Fonterra is conducting two inquiries of its own, one for the board of directors and another to be carried out as an independent review. “The why question is going to be on the table,” Wilson said. New Zealand’s share of the Chinese dairy market, including baby formula, grew rapidly after the 2008 scandal involving melamine-contaminated milk. Ever since then, Chinese families have sought out foreign brands, especially Fonterra. Mike Stewart at the Australian Food Safety News reported in early July (before the current botulism scare) that China’s state-run CCTV news was airing stories critical of New Zealand’s infant formulas. The government’s TV news reported that selenium levels in some New Zealand baby formulas were not in line with Chinese standards. Jan Carey, who heads the Infant Nutrition Council for New Zealand and Australia, called such claims “false and misleading.”

  • A. Aydin, PhD

    Is this a news letter about food safety or about fear mongering? A 38 ton problem is turned into millions of tons contamination problem with your headline. Many people read only the headlines.
    “After several million tons of its whey protein concentrate used in baby formula was found to be contaminated with potentially deadly botulism,”