BEIJING: New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra apologized on Monday for a botulism scare that saw product recalls in China but denied accusations by Prime Minister John Key that it had delayed releasing information.
“We deeply apologize to the people who have been affected,” Chief Executive Theo Spierings said at a news conference in Beijing, insisting that the company had informed customers and the authorities within 24 hours of confirming the problem.
The whey product involved is used to make infant formula and soft drinks, and had been contaminated with a bacteria that can cause botulism. China is the world’s biggest market for formula.
“We totally understand the concern among parents. They have a right to know that food is safe,” Spierings said, adding that Fonterra planned to “test anything that leaves New Zealand as a precautionary measure.”
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key had earlier accused the company of a “staggering” delay in revealing the contamination.
“I’m a bit staggered” that tests had shown “something” in May 2012, when the batch was produced, “but clearly not something that was of concern to the company because they allowed it to go out,” Key told Radio New Zealand.
“You would have thought that for a business where its top business is essentially based around consumer confidence, food safety and the quality of its products, that they are risks that you wouldn’t take,” Key added.
But Spierings said the first signs of a problem only emerged after tests in March this year.
Further tests were required to identify “the root cause and the exact strain” of bacteria involved, he said.
“That takes time. That was confirmed on July 31. And as far as I remember on July 31 we got that message and we went out 24 hours later in the proper way to inform our customers and to inform the NZ government,” Spierings said.
The company’s efforts to reassure consumers came after China’s Food and Drug Administration instructed officials from three companies importing Fonterra products to “immediately stop selling and to recall all food products” made with questionable material.