The head of the world’s largest dairy exporter, New Zealand’s Fonterra, has apologised over a food safety scare that saw some contaminated products shipped to other countries.
Theo Spierings, who travelled to China to reassure consumers, insisted that milk products were safe because bacteria would be killed during processing.
Bacteria has been found that can cause botulism. The illness is rare but can be fatal.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key accused the company of delay in raising the alarm.
“You’d think they’d take such a precautionary view to these things and say if it’s testing for some reason in an odd way that it would just be discarded until they were absolutely sure that it’s right. Well, that’s something the executive directors will have to answer for,” he said on television.
Fonterra said problems were only detected after tests in March this year. Bacteria from a dirty pipe at a processing plant was found in whey protein used in baby food, it added.
At least three countries – China, Russia and Vietnam – have banned imports of milk powder and whey protein from Fonterra.
“No adverse reactions have been reported from consumers so far. We’re asking our sales teams to investigate,” said Yang Jie from the Hangzhou Wahaha Group, a Chinese firm that sells the milk powder.
The case is sensitive in China which has had several food safety scandals in recent years, and damaging to New Zealand which relies heavily on dairy exports.