You have to feel sorry for those in charge at New Zealand dairy company Fonterra. On August 3rd they were faced with the unenviable task of announcing to the world that 42 tonnes of whey protein concentrate produced in May 2012 was contaminated with a toxigenic strain of Clostridium botulinum. The whey protein had long since been shipped to food manufacturers in Australasia and the Far East for use as an ingredient in various products, including infant formula. Product recalls were immediately initiated in at least seven countries and Fonterra’s reputation – not to mention that of the rest of the New Zealand dairy industry – took a dive as several countries banned imports of milk powder and whey protein from the company. This caused alarm and prompted the NZ government to set about trying to reassure important export markets around the world.
Then, on August 28th, everything changed. The Ministry for Primary Industries announced that the results of further tests carried out in New Zealand and the USA had failed to confirm the presence of Clostridium botulinum in the original samples. Instead the contaminant had been identified as Clostridium sporogenes, a spoilage organism incapable of producing toxins and not considered to be a food safety hazard. While this news was greeted with a big sigh of relief, especially from Fonterra’s customers, it also prompted some questions about how the mistake had arisen. Several inquiries have been set up to look into the matter, and there is little point in speculating on the likely outcome, although it is worth noting that the detection and identification of Clostridium botulinum is a potentially hazardous and difficult procedure that very few labs are equipped to undertake.
It is to be hoped that the inquest into questionable lab results and false alarm recalls does not distract attention away from the equally important matter of how the whey protein came to contain clostridia of any species in the first place. Local press reports suggest that the cause was a failure to properly sterilise pipework at the production facility before the contaminated batches were made – a fact that apparently did not come to light until almost a year after the event. That is what really needs investigating.