New Zealand seeks answers on milk scare ‘embarrassment’
New Zealand on Thursday demanded answers on how a false test reading triggered a botulism scare for diary giant Fonterra that led to global product recalls, calling it a costly embarrassment.
Officials sounded the alarm earlier this month after tests showed batches of whey power produced by Fonterra were contaminated with the potentially fatal bacterium clostridium botulinum.
Infant formula was pulled off shelves from China to Saudi Arabia as New Zealand’s reputation for producing gold standard foodstuffs, which command top prices in Asia, took a battering.
But it was revealed on Wednesday that subsequent tests had proved the bug in the milk power was in fact a non-toxic bacterium called clostridium sporogenes and there had never been any danger to consumers.
“The whole thing’s been an embarrassment to New Zealand,” Trade Minister Tim Groser said.
“I’ve never tried to conceal the fact that it was going to cost us - the question was always ‘how long, how much?’”
With New Zealand reliant on the dairy industry for 25 per cent of its exports, Groser said it was important to prevent such mistakes occurring again.
“The consequences of this particular false positive have been very grave and we want answers as to why on earth this happened,” Groser said.
Fonterra said on Wednesday the initial test that incorrectly detected botulism and sparked the crisis was done by AgResearch, a government agency.
The Ministry for Primary Industries said it was too early to draw any conclusions about the quality of AgResearch’s labouratory testing but the issue was being investigated.
“We are fully focused on getting to the bottom of this and actually providing the sort of clarity that consumers and overseas markets require,” acting director-general Scott Gallacher said.
The opposition Labour Party said the government had failed to ensure New Zealand’s food testing and monitoring labs were world-class, resulting in a “botulism botch-up”.
“This fiasco continues to be a disaster for our clean, green brand. The inability of the ministry’s systems means our reputation is always at risk,” Labour primary industries spokesman Damien O’Connor said.
“While New Zealand was right to take an immediately precautionary approach, our international competitors will be laughing all the way to the bank.”