China has issued a ban on Fonterra products after the world’s largest dairy exporter confirmed a batch of whey protein concentrate contained a bacteria that can cause botulism.

Three batches of WPC80, produced in May 2012 at a single New Zealand plant, contain clostridium botulinum, Fonterra confirmed on Friday (2 August). The ingredient is used in various products, including infant formula and body building powder.

While the product was manufactured 15 months ago, Fonterra only became aware that the ingredient contained unacceptable levels of the bacteria on 31 July. The company had noted “high levels” – that were nonetheless within the permitted thresholds – in March of this year, when the ingredient began to be shipped for use in consumer products, a source told just-food. Further tests were then conducted.

The whey protein was shipped to customers in New Zealand and various international markets, including China, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia.

Fonterra revealed it sold the whey protein to eight customers. Products manufactured by three of these “are safe” because the production process used by Wahaha, Coca-Cola and Vitaco would kill the bacteria, the dairy manufacturer said. 

According to New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries, two products from Danone‘s Nutricia Karicare range included the whey protein as an ingredient. The ministry urged New Zealand consumers to avoid giving babies Karicare stage one and stage two formula because the specific batches contaminated have not yet been traced.

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“MPI has not been able to fully trace through Nutricia’s supply chain which specific batches of its products may contain contaminated whey protein, and which don’t, and whether affected batches are in New Zealand stores,” acting director-general Scott Gallacher said.

Danone has issued a product recall. In a statement the group emphasised products impacted are only on sale in New Zealand.

“Fonterra has indicated that some of the ingredients supplied to Nutricia, the makers of Karicare and Aptamil, may have been contaminated. For this reason, Nutricia has instigated a precautionary recall in New Zealand only,” the French company said. “This issue does not affect any Nutricia products sold in Australia.”

The contamination issue has prompted Chinese authorities to temporarily suspend imports of whey powder and dairy base powder produced by Fonterra. 

Fonterra has not produced infant formula for the Chinese market since its involvement in the melamine contamination scandal in 2008, when infant formula producted by local partner Sanlu – and more than 20 other domestic companies – was found to contain the industrial chemical. The scandal killed six babies and sickened thousands more.

Fonterra was planning to expand into the Chinese infant formula category, CFO Jonathan Mason told just-food in an interview in March.

Commenting on the trade ban, Fonterra said Chinese authorities have stopped short of a blanket ban on New Zealand dairy products and are allowing Fonterra to continue to import Whole Milk Powder and Skim Milk Powder.

“MPI has confirmed that China has not closed the market to New Zealand dairy products – and that China is being quite specific about the range of Fonterra products which it has temporarily suspended,” Gary Romano, MD of Fonterra’s New Zealand milk products business, said.

Fonterra said China has increased inspection and supervision at the border for New Zealand dairy products, as well as suggesting extra testing may be required.

The company said it is unaware of any other market closures, Romano added.

New Zealand’s MPI is investigating unconfirmed reports Russia has implemented a temporary ban on dairy exports from the country.

No known illnesses have resulted from the contamination, Fonterra said. 

It is the second dairy contamination issue involving Fontarra this year. In January, traces of agricultural chemical dicyandiamide (DCD) were found in some of its dairy products. While the company said that there was no risk to health, the group called for a suspension on DCD use on agricultural land treatment in a bid to reassure international customers.