Hong Kong and Macau recalled a brand of baby formula yesterday amid growing concern over botulism-causing bacteria in products made by New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra.
The company's chief executive Theo Spierings arrived in Beijing yesterday to apologise for distress caused by the scare.
"We regret the distress and anxiety which this issue could have caused," Spierings said.
"Parents have the right to know that infant nutrition and other products are safe."
At the same time, Cow & Gate recalled 80,000 cans of one type of its stage-three baby formula in Hong Kong and Macau.
The company was notified by Fonterra that some ingredients might be contaminated.
The recall was announced just a day after health minister Dr Ko Wing-man said no contaminated milk products were imported to Hong Kong.
But officials at the Hong Kong Centre for Food Safety said they could not rule out the possibility that other products sold in the city had been contaminated.
Formula contamination has been an issue of intense public concern since melamine-tainted milk killed six children and made more than 300,000 ill on the mainland five years ago.
In 2008, Fonterra held a minority stake in Shijiazhuang Sanlu, one of the main companies involved in the scandal.
But Spierings said: "Chinese customers can be fully confident, because it is a long supply chain with a lot of checks. There can be mistakes as long as you correct them."
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Fonterra announced over the weekend that 38 tonnes of whey protein contained bacteria that could cause botulism. Some was imported by Dumex Baby Food, a Danone brand, and two drink manufacturers, Hangzhou Wahaha and Coca Cola China.
They were among eight manufacturers supplied with affected whey protein by Fonterra.
Although 90 per cent of the ingredients was confined to warehouses, about 10 per cent was still being recalled, Spierings said. The impact of the contamination may be limited because New Zealand provides only about 1 per cent of the whey protein imported by China. The US provides nearly half and the rest is mainly from Europe.
The Hong Kong recall involved about 140,000 cans of formula imported in the middle of last month, of which 82,000 were distributed to shops.
The rest are still in storage, said the Centre for Food Safety.
"Whey protein is a raw material for many different foods," said the centre's assistant director in food surveillance and control, Dr Lee Siu-yuen.
"We don't know if other foods sold here will be found to be contaminated."
Cow & Gate said in a statement that none of the products sold in Hong Kong and Macau indicated any contamination and it had not received any reports of baby illnesses.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key asked why Fonterra delayed alerting customers when the contaminated goods were produced in May last year.
Spierings said the first sign of a problem came when products were tested in March and the bacteria was identified only last Wednesday.
Customers and the New Zealand government were notified within a day, he said.