FOOD SAFETY

Botulism milk powder scandal

No testing planned despite recall of milk powder formula

Food watchdog says tracing should be done from source of contamination as call goes out for greater transparency on the problem

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 August, 2013, 12:41pm

The government will not test milk products, despite one brand of baby formula recalling two batches of its products amid a scare over whey protein contamination in New Zealand.

International dairy exporter Fonterra reported bacterial contamination in three batches of its whey protein, a raw material for various kinds of food and drinks, mostly milk products.

The Centre for Food Safety said Fonterra had sold the contaminated whey to eight food manufacturers, but that it had not disclosed their names.

However, at a press conference called by Fonterra in Beijing, it named most of the firms that had bought the whey.

In Hong Kong, about 140,000 cans of Cow & Gate formula are known to have been affected by the contamination so far.

The centre said yesterday that it would be uneconomical to take samples to check for the bacteria.

"Tracing should be done from the source on where the contaminated whey protein went, what food it was made into and to whom it was sold, level by level," said the centre's assistant director of food surveillance and control, Dr Lee Siu-yuen. "To collect food samples in the lower stream … would not be cost-effective."

The centre would remain on alert for new reports of product contamination and may do sampling if necessary, she said.

Paediatricians say the health risk of the incident is low, as only infants under age one are vulnerable to the bacteria, Clostridium botulinum. Older children and adults have immunity to it.

Cow & Gate said yesterday that Hong Kong and Macau consumers who had bought Stage 3 formula milk from batch numbers 3178 and 3179 for children aged one to three years old should return it to the place of purchase for a product exchange.

"It's a pretty popular second-tier brand, especially among mainland Chinese consumers," said Jackson Chan, manager at the Best Health Dispensary in Sheung Shui.

"Mainland consumers, by and large due to safety issues, still go for big American brands such as those made by Mead Johnson and Wyeth," he said.

Nutricia's Karicare formula, which was recalled by the company at the weekend, made up less than 10 per cent of formula sales at his pharmacy, Chan said.

Said Chan Tat, owner of Tong De Pharmacy, also in Sheung Shui: "Some of my customers have been quite concerned. Karicare is not one of our top brands but there are some parents who come looking specifically for this brand They've been giving it to their children for a long time so now they're wondering if these products have been contaminated all along."

Ellis Hon Kam Lun, a professor of paediatrics at the Chinese University, said Clostridium botulinum might pose a significant amount of risk to infants as it could produce a protein and neurotoxin called botulinum toxin.

A large dose of the toxin could block neuromuscular transmission and could be fatal, he said.

Hon said the government and the manufacturer should be more transparent in making public the type of Clostridium botulinum they detected in the powder and the toxicity level found in tests.

"Withholding key information like this will only create panic among parents," he said.

Alan Leong Ka-kit, chairman of the Legislative Council's food safety and environmental hygiene panel, said the government's "laid-back" response was unacceptable.

He said it should test potentially affected products on sale in Hong Kong and press the New Zealand government to disclose products affected.

PRODUCT LINE-UP

Cow & Gate - Happy Baby Stage 1 (up to 6 months old)

Cow & Gate - Happy Baby Stage 2 Follow On Formula (6 to 12 months old)

Cow & Gate - Happy Kid Stage 3 Growing Up Formula (1 to 3 years old)*

Cow & Gate - Happy Kid Stage 4 Growing Up Formula (3 years old and above)

*Only batches 3178 and 3179 of this formula are being recalled