Thursday, October 10, 2013

Fonterra & The Botulism Scare. What Actually Happened

Keith Woodford's blog is great. He doesn't post often but when he does its good.

His latest post is on the Fonterra botulism scare. Keith outlines the turn of events.

Here are the main points.

It all started back in May 2012 when some plastic came loose in a whey concentrate dryer at the Hautapu plant near Hamilton. The risk was that this plastic had got smashed up and possibly melted within the dryer, and then mixed with the whey.
The only way to find out for sure was to hydrate the whey powder (which is soluble) and then filter out any solids.  For reasons not clear, Fonterra chose to do this using equipment that had not been used recently.  Unfortunately the equipment had not been properly cleaned.
Once hydrated and then re-dried, the product passed the mandatory bacterial tests, but did have a level somewhat higher than typical. 
By this stage there should have been two orange flags but the Fonterra system recognised neither.  The first was that once the product had been reprocessed, then it should have been drafted away from human use and used for stock feed. The second orange flag was when the re-processed whey powder gave elevated but technically acceptable bacterial counts. Once again, this should have been enough to restrict its use to stock feed.
The next flag came in March 2013, when an Australian division of Fonterra re-tested some of the powder before using it as an ingredient. 
This time they found bacterial counts had further elevated. In all likelihood these levels were still below technically acceptable levels, but the fact that levels had risen in the powder would have been indicative of anaerobic bacteria being present. 
Fonterra saw this as an orange flag but it should have been a red flag. All products processed from the Hautapu plant using the same production system should have been immediately removed from the supply chain and placed under bond. Instead, Fonterra decided only to do further tests. 
Hindsight is wonderful. If in doubt leave it out.

Discriminating between sporogenes and botulinum is difficult. There is no quick laboratory test. Instead, it is necessary to culture the organisms and then feed them to mice. If the mice die then it is botulinum; if they don’t die it is sporogenes.
In this case, it would seem that some mice may have died but not enough to be sure. 
So AgResearch reported that it looked likely that there was botulinum present but they were still not sure. 
At this stage Fonterra did see a red flag. The Government was notified and there was a product recall.

If only Fonterra had seen the warning flags earlier on, then all of the damage could have been avoided. The products should have been removed from the supply chain before there was any risk of them getting anywhere near any consumers. If that had been done, then no public recall of products would have been needed.
Things got worse when Fonterra's representative went onto live TV and said that they had actually found the botulism toxin in infant formula! We now know that the actual harmful toxin was not present.

One of the interesting issues going forward will be whether legal action is now undertaken, and if so, as to who sues who.
Their unhappiness is not that Fonterra delivered them a product containing Clostridium botulinum. Indeed Fonterra did not deliver such a product. Their unhappiness will be that Fonterra so bungled the management of the scare that their infant formula market in China has been seriously damaged.

I was speaking with a food safety consultant recently. He has a client who manufactures and sells blackberry powder to the asian market.

His product has been stopped from entering into some asian countries. 

He was notified by his customer via an email in broken english explaining that they won't purchase anymore product because botulism was in New Zealand products.

This issue does not just affect dairy products.

I suppose this highlights the dangers of the food business. Reputations can be ruined so quickly. 

As a consumer, I often wonder how food can cost so much. Consumer may only think about the cost of land, inputs, wages, harvesting & delivery costs.

But the cost of testing food, storage costs while food awaits results and of course product that is discarded if test results are not conclusive, are all major costs that food companies must face and build into the price.

New Zealand has had such a good reputation as providing safe food, thats because its so easy to stuff up. Other countries have stuffed up.

Hopefully all businesses in New Zealand can learn from this. 

I get sick of hearing small business people complaining about the amount of regulation that they must pass in order to provide food to the public. Sure, it may be hard and tiresome, but the costs of getting it wrong are too great for our little country. 

Food safety is our competitive advantage, so we must protect it. 


  1. Thanks goodness we were not in the business of marketing milk powder. What a disaster that could of been. $12M - $2M over night.

    Mr E

  2. Tonight we attended an amazing fall festival hosted by Food Marketing Consultants. The festival was open to the public and brought in close to 3,000 people. Not a surprise the event attracted people of all ages, shapes and sizes. The entertainment included everything from “trunk or treat”, train rides, bouncy castles and more.