New Zealand’s dairy sector has been dealt another blow after local co-op Westland Milk Products had the export licence for batches of lactoferrin revoked amid concern over nitrate levels.

The export license for lactoferrin shipped to China was withrawn after nitrate levels were found to exceed designated limits.

The New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries said today (19 August) that it has revoked the export license of four consignments of the dairy ingredient. Two of the consignments were shipped to China – one by Westland and one by third party food group Tatua Co-operative Dairy Company. The remaining two batches are contained in Westland’s warehouse.

The MPI said the companies involved confirmed a “small amount” of the lactoferrin was used in the production of consumer foods in China, but added the products are contained in the supply chain. None of the non-compliant dairy ingredient was used in consumer products in New Zealand, the regulator added.

MPI acting director-general Scott Gallacher said any safety risk for Chinese consumers was “negligible”.

However, he added: “MPI, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the companies concerned are working closely with the Chinese authorities on this issue.”

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Westland emphasised the products concerned have already been traced and quarantined and stressed that the nitrate levels “did not comprise a food safety risk”.

“Food safety is not the issue in this instance because lactoferrin is used as a very minor ingredient in food products. This means that, even if the lactoferrin with elevated nitrates had been added to food, the retail products would still have nitrate levels significantly below allowed limits,” chief executive Rod Quin said.

According to Quin, the company’s investigation into the matter has found the elevated nitrate levels were an “isolated incident” caused by the presence of cleaning materials on machinery.

“Based on these results and our investigations to date Westland is of the view it is an isolated incident in the lactoferrin plant only, where traces of cleaning products (which contains nitrates) were not adequately flushed from the plant prior to a new run of product,” Quin explained. “Our investigation is underway to establish the root cause and we have implemented corrective actions so we can ensure this does not happen again.”

Westland said only two batches were impacted and no other product is affected. The company has, however, put all lactoferrin in its own warehouse on hold while it re-tests to ensure nitrate levels meet regulatory requirements.

This is the second recall to hit New Zealand dairy exporters in recent weeks. In a high-profile safety scare last month, Fonterra was forced to recall whey powder contaminated with a bacteria that can cause botulism. The ingredient was shipped to a number of markets, including China, where is was used to produce infant formula and drinks products by the likes of Danone, Wahaha and Coca-Cola Co.