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Chinese distrust mounts after Fonterra milk scare
by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) Aug 05, 2013

Fonterra apologises over milk scare, denies cover-up: CEO
Beijing (AFP) Aug 05, 2013 - New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra apologised 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 apologise to the people who have been affected," CEO 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," he 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.

Chinese consumers already wary of domestic milk powder brands fretted Monday whether they could find safe formula anywhere, after New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra issued a botulism alert.

Parents doing their shopping and users of China's popular Twitter-like service Sina Weibo cast around for who to trust and who to blame, although there were no reports of panic buying.

Three companies in China which were supplied by Fonterra, one of them a formula manufacturer, have been ordered to recall potentially tainted products.

"Babies who do not have breastmilk are so vulnerable," wrote a Weibo user using the handle L-Gao.

She added that she had given her newborn milk for a month from Dumex, a subsidiary of French foods giant Danone and one of the affected firms.

The other companies named were Hangzhou Wahaha and Coca-Cola's Chinese subsidiary.

Another user worried whether other brands were also at risk but had not yet been revealed.

The safety of baby formula became a sensitive issue in China after milk tainted with the chemical melamine left six children dead and sickened more than 300,000 in 2008.

Premier Li Keqiang pledged in March to punish safety violators and better oversee domestic milk powder production, in an effort to rebuild trust in Chinese companies.

Fonterra said there had been no reports of illness linked to consumption of the product, tainted with the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, which can cause botulism, an infection that can lead to paralysis and death.

Even after the Fonterra warning, some Chinese still placed their bets on foreign brands.

"No matter how bad imported milk is, I will never buy domestically made baby formula," said one Weibo user.

Others blamed the government, with another poster pointing out that "no department detected the problem or publicised it".

At a supermarket in Beijing, Shen Tingting, a businesswoman buying groceries, said she fed her 21-month-old daughter a local brand because her nephew had drunk it without any problems.

"I would consult my relatives before I buy baby formula -- I'd be more assured of its safety," she told AFP.


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