29 Aug 2013

Nutricia mulling legal action over false alarm

7:47 pm on 29 August 2013

The infant formula manufacturer at the centre of the Fonterra botulism false alarm,says it's considering taking legal action for loss of earnings.

Nutricia had to recall 67,000 tins of Karicare infant formula as a precaution after Fonterra announced on 3 August that a bacteria that could cause botulism had been identified in some whey powder.

The Ministry for Primary Industries has revealed test results by the Crown Research Institute AgResearch were wrong, with new tests showing the strain of bacteria involved is not capable of causing the potentially lethal disease.

The ministry says the new tests found instead a bacteria which appears in cases of food spoilage.

Nutricia's general manager Corine Tap said on Thursday the company's own testing found no evidence of clostridium botulinum in its products and it told Fonterra and the Ministry for Primary Industries of the results.

She says it is a great relief that has been confirmed but the company had to take the actions it did to make sure babies were safe.

She says the company's main objective now is to regain the trust of Kiwi parents in the Karicare brand. All its products are now back on New Zealand shelves.

Ms Tap does not know how much money the company has lost as a result of the false alarm but says it's considering seeking compensation.

MPI says still issues to sort out

The ministry says while the new tests have cleared Fonterra products of botulism-related contamination, there are still issues to sort out which will be the focus of ongoing ministry investigations.

Acting director general Scott Gallacher says a failure of hygiene during processing remains a concern for customers and for the ministry.

Mr Gallacher says clearly something occurred that should not have at the Hautapu plant where the whey protein concentrate was processed.

"And that is something that our investigation, our ongoing investigation is going to get to the bottom of as to why the original whey protein ingredient left Hautapu with some question marks over it."

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for AgResearch says the institute is bound by a confidentiality agreement with Fonterra but it has reviewed its tests and it is confident they were correct.

Fonterra 'could have limited damage'

A microbiologist from Auckland University, Siouxie Wiles, says Fonterra has done itself a huge disservice by holding scientists at arms length during the botulism scare.

Dr Wiles says Fonterra could have limited the damage if it had asked scientists to help explain what had been found.

"They should have said 'we have found a strain, and it could potentially be the toxin-producing strain but it could potentially be something that isn't a danger. And they didn't do that, they went with the panic button, and that's just astonishing."

Dr Wiles says she also cannot understand why Fonterra took so long to do its testing.

But a Auckland University of Technology microbiologist, John Brooks, told NIne to Noon the time taken does not surprise him because it is very hard to tell the two bacteria apart.

"It's actually very difficult to distinguish between clostridium botulinum and, for example, clostridium sporogenes, which it's turned out to be."

A biotechnologist and the vice president of Federated Farmers, William Rolleston, says science is hardly ever clear cut. He says that in television shows like "CSI" the answers always appear to be absolutely definitive and they take five minutes but that is not reality.

He also says the reality is that there will be false positives and false negatives.