Fonterra Whareroa factory with Mount Taranaki

Fonterra has alerted customers that batches of its WPC80 whey protein had been found to contain a strain of clostridium that can cause botulism

New Zealand’s dairy industry has been rocked by a major food scandal, after bacteria contamination was discovered in whey powder used to make baby formula produced by the country’s leading dairy co-operative, Fonterra, and exported to markets such as China and the Middle East.

Chinese authorities have temporarily suspended imports of whey powder and dairy base powder made by Fonterra, and stepped up controls and testing efforts on New Zealand dairy imports generally. There have also been reports that Russian authorities have temporarily banned Fonterra products in response to the incident.

Fonterra alerted eight of its customers – including some in China – on Saturday that three batches of its WPC80 whey protein concentrate had been found to contain a strain of clostridium that can cause botulism. The product was produced at one of Fonterra’s New Zealand plants in May 2012, and is used in baby formula, growing-up milk powder and sports drinks. Fonterra believes the contamination was introduced through a dirty pipe at the processing plant.

Fonterra said it had alerted its customers to ensure they investigated their supply chains and removed any affected product from the market as soon as possible. It stressed there had been no reports of consumers falling ill to date, and said none of its branded products were affected by the outbreak.

The incident has caused particular alarm in China, where the local milk industry has been rocked by contamination scandals in the recent past, driving consumers to opt for supposedly safer Western imports – especially for baby nutrition. Fonterra CEO Theo Spierings has apologised to Chinese parents for the distress caused by the incident, and said Fonterra was working closely with Chinese authorities to deal with the problem.

Some reports initially suggested China had temporarily denied access to all New Zealand dairy imports, but Fonterra said New Zealand’s government had reassured it this was not the case. “China is being quite specific about the range of Fonterra products which it has temporarily suspended,” said Fonterra’s NZ milk products MD Gary Romano. “Whole milk powder and skim milk powder have not been suspended.”

Aside from China, the affected product was exported to Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. Vietnamese authorities have started a recall of products, while Danone is recalling batches of baby formula products made for the Malaysian market.