Aug 05, 2013

    China stops NZ milk-powder imports after bacteria scare

    CHINA has halted imports of all New Zealand milk powder, New Zealand's trade minister said yesterday, after bacteria that can cause botulism found in some dairy products raised food-safety concerns that threatened its US$9.4-billion (S$12-billion) annual dairy trade.

    Global dairy-trade giant Fonterra said last Saturday that it had sold contaminated New Zealand-made whey-protein concentrate to eight customers in Australia, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Saudi Arabia, for use in a range of products, including infant milk powder.

    Nearly 90 per cent of China's US$1.9 billion in milk-powder imports last year originated in New Zealand, so a prolonged ban could result in a shortage of dairy products in China.

    Foreign-branded infant formula, in particular, is a prized commodity in China, given consumer distrust of Chinese brands after a series of domestic food-safety scandals.

    New Zealand's neighbour Australia was caught up in the ban after some of the contaminated whey-protein concentrate was exported there before being sent on to China and elsewhere.

    "The authorities in China, in my opinion, absolutely appropriately, have stopped all imports of New Zealand milk powder from Australia and New Zealand," New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser told Television New Zealand yesterday.

    "It's better to do blanket protection for your people and then wind it back when we, the authorities here, are in a position to give them the confidence and advice that they need before doing that," he said.

    Last Saturday, Chinese state radio said Fonterra was notifying three Chinese firms affected by the contamination.

    Some of China's biggest food-and-beverage companies are said to be customers of Fonterra, using its milk powder as an ingredient in everything from confectionery to cheese on frozen pizza.

    Other countries were also reportedly halting imports and ordering recalls of New Zealand-made dairy products.

    Russia has suspended imports and circulation of Fonterra products.

    Media reports late last Saturday said Thailand had ordered a recall of Fonterra products imported since May.

    New Zealand's Ministry of Primary Industries said five batches of follow-on baby formula marketed by Karicare, a popular brand in China, had been contaminated by the bacteria, although none had entered the retail supply chain. Those products sitting in storage facilities would be held back from the market, it said.

    The bacteria behind the latest scare, Clostridium botulinum, is often found in soil. The Fonterra case was caused by a dirty pipe at a processing plant. It can cause botulism, a potentially-fatal disease that affects the muscles and can cause respiratory problems. Infant botulism can attack the intestinal system.