Swiss food manufacturer Hero Group has insisted its infant formula on sale in China is safe after reports a local distributor allegedly mislabelled some of the company’s products.

Hero issued a series of statements over the weekend after news broke in China that an employee at a local distributor had been arrested and batches of the company’s Hero Nutradefense infant formula seized.

Hero launched Hero Nutradefense in China last year. The formula is made for the company in the Netherlands by FrieslandCampina and exported to China.

On Friday (29 March), China Central Television reported Chinese distributor Xile Lier was found in November to have mixed the imported formula with powder past its sell-by date and from an unknown milk source. Xile Lier also changed production and expiry dates, CCTV reported. Infant formula worth CNY50m (US$8.1m) was seized by police in the eastern city of Suzhou.

However, local officials did not publicise the affair until last week nor did authorities order a recall of the products, the China Daily newspaper reported on Saturday. On Thursday, at a press conference in Suzhou, local food safety officials said the head of Xile Lier had been arrested.

In Hero’s latest statement, issued yesterday, the company said it “sincerely regrets the understandable worries of Chinese parents caused by the alleged misbehaviour of a sub-distributor in China”.

The company said: “We do not tolerate any behaviour compromising the quality and safety of our products. As part of our investigation in this matter, we are exploring how to improve our monitoring of the full distribution chain.”

However, it added: “Despite information in the media, neither Hero nor the Chinese authorities have found any evidence that Hero’s products on the market are unsafe for consumption or not in line with the defined standards.”

In a “Q&A” press release published on Friday, Hero said it had found out about the allegations in December.

“We learned in December that Suzhou authorities had begun an investigation into alleged illegal repackaging by a sub-distributor. We immediately co-operated with the authorities to investigate the matter. 

“Going forward, we are committed to continue working with the relevant authorities and will take whatever steps necessary to guarantee the safety of consumers. “Given the allegations outlined in the CCTV report, we felt it was right to issue a statement to address consumers’ concerns.”

When telephoned by just-food this morning, Hero said it would look to answer questions by email.

The safety of infant formula has hit the headlines a number of times in recent years. In 2008, six babies died and thousands died after drinking Chinese formula containing industrial chemical melamine. Chinese consumers have sought out overseas brands, believing the products to be safer. Local companies have invested in their supply chains and food safety and the Chinese government, which has introduced tougher laws to try to improve food safety, reportedly said last month it would look to bring in specific legislation on infant formula.