WELLINGTON: New Zealand demanded answers on Thursday about how a false test reading triggered a botulism scare for diary giant Fonterra that forced global product recalls, describing the episode as a costly embarrassment.
Officials sounded the alarm earlier this month after tests showed batches of whey power produced by Fonterra were contaminated with the potentially fatal bug clostridium botulinum.
Infant formula was pulled off shelves from China to Saudi Arabia as New Zealand’s reputation for producing the gold-standard foodstuffs that command top prices in Asia took a battering.
But it was revealed on Wednesday that subsequent tests had proved the contaminant was in fact a non-toxic bacterium called clostridium sporogenes and there had never been any danger to consumers.
“The whole thing’s been an embarrassment to New Zealand,” Trade Minister Tim Groser told Radio New Zealand, as the opposition accused his government of overseeing a “botulism botch-up.”
“I’ve never tried to conceal the fact that it was going to cost us—the question was always ‘how long, how much?’”
With New Zealand reliant on the dairy industry for 25 percent of its exports and the prospect of compensation lawsuits from affected companies looming, Groser said it was important to prevent such mistakes occurring again.
“The consequences of this particular false positive have been very grave and we want answers as to why on earth this happened,” Groser said.
Fonterra said on Wednesday the initial test that incorrectly detected botulism and sparked the crisis was done by AgResearch, a government agency.
The Ministry for Primary Industries said it was too early to draw any conclusions about the quality of AgResearch’s laboratory testing but the issue was being investigated.