Orange and red flags ignored

Months after the precautionary recall of products containing whey protein which was later proved to be clear of botulism there is still a lot of confusion about what happened.

Keith Woodford explains it was all about orange and red flags:

. . . It all started back in May 2012 when some plastic came loose in a whey concentrate dryer at the Hautapu plant near Hamilton. The risk was that this plastic had got smashed up and possibly melted within the dryer, and then mixed with the whey.

The only way to find out for sure was to hydrate the whey powder (which is soluble) and then filter out any solids.  For reasons not clear, Fonterra chose to do this using equipment that had not been used recently.  Unfortunately the equipment had not been properly cleaned.

Once hydrated and then re-dried, the product passed the mandatory bacterial tests, but did have a level somewhat higher than typical.

By this stage there should have been two orange flags but the Fonterra system recognised neither.  The first was that once the product had been reprocessed, then it should have been drafted away from human use and used for stock feed. The second orange flag was when the re-processed whey powder gave elevated but technically acceptable bacterial counts. Once again, this should have been enough to restrict its use to stock feed. . .

He explains what happened next and about the testing in the clearest summary I have come across. It is very interesting reading.

He then gets on to the ongoing fallout:

. . . As events have turned out, it is now apparent that it was a false alarm. Further testing overseas has confirmed that in fact it was not botulinum.  However, great damage to Fonterra’s and New Zealand’s reputation occurred, with the recall being splashed globally in the news media, and particularly so in China  where many of Fonterra’s products are sold. In fact I am writing this from China, and I can confirm that it has very much come to the attention of Chinese consumers.

It will be interesting to see how this now plays out. Here in China there is no doubt that Danone in particular has suffered great damage, with their leading infant formula brand Dumex being particularly badly hit. (Dumex is the equivalent of ‘Karicare’ in New Zealand, with Karicare being marketed by  Danone’s  Nutricia subsidiary.)  .

Earlier this week, in a Shanghai supermarket, there was a message over the in-store radio every five minutes advising that the Fonterra food safety scare was actually a false alarm. But unofficial sources tell me that sales of the Dumex brand are still hugely affected, with up to 90% loss of sales. Consumers have moved to other brands and now have to be painstakingly won back. A Google search using Chinese characters for ‘poisonous’ and ‘milk powder’ and ‘Dumex’ produces over one million references. . .

There is an irony that Fonterra’s milk powder is still flowing into China unimpeded, and prices for these bulk products have not suffered.  It is the consumer brands that are not owned by Fonterra that have suffered. . .

It isn’t just milk products which are affected:

Glen Herud at Milking on the Moove was speaking to a food safety consultant recently:

He has a client who manufactures and sells blackberry powder to the Asian market.

His product has been stopped from entering into some Asian countries. 

He was notified by his customer via an email in broken English explaining that they won’t purchase anymore product because botulism was in New Zealand products. . . 

Inquiries into exactly what went wrong at Fonterra and the subsequent handling of the issue are continuing and so are the consequences.

Whatever comes out of the inquiries, all food processors need to be sure they have systems which recognise and respond appropriately to orange flags long before any red ones are raised.

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