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Whey protein inquiry calls for tighter rules after missteps lead to botulism scare

Tuesday 9th December 2014

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Stage two of a government inquiry into Fonterra Cooperative Group's whey protein contamination scare has recommended the Ministry for Primary Industries beef up its ability to manage food safety, including statutory powers to force companies to hand over relevant information.

The WPC80 incident: causes and responses report, chaired by Miriam Dean QC, identifies four immediate causes of the botulism scare, which damaged New Zealand's reputation for food safety before properly qualified testers found the contamination was harmless.

To start, Fonterra's Hautapu plant used an improvised method of reprocessing a batch of WPC80 that contained fragments of a broken torch lens, without a risk assessment and in breach of the company's risk management programme. Fonterra's research centre then encouraged testing for Clostridium botulinum, through a series of mis-communications within the company, without considering the purpose or implications. Approval was given for "toxin testing" without the realisation this would include C.botulinum testing. Then Fonterra failed to advise the ministry and its customers in a timely manner of a potential food safety problem.

The government today announced $7.9 million of funding for the ministry over four years to address the inquiry's nine primary recommendations. They include revised rules for non-routine 'reworking' of food products, completion of a food incident protocol, regular exercises and simulations of food safety incidents, re-establishing a group of scientific experts similar to the disbanded NZFSA Academy, new statutory powers so the ministry can extract information from affected companies,

The inquiry also says the ministry should have enough targeted funding to complete "much needed" reform of dairy regulations and has resources over and above what it needs for day to day operations to ensure a regular programme of simulations. It also wants a law change to clearly define what  tests must be conducted by laboratories and a register of laboratories around the world.

In the report's peer review, Professor Alan Reilly, chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, says a sobering inquiry finding is "the sad reflection that this incident with its serious consequences was entirely avoidable, had a strong food safety culture thrived in the workplace."

"As the Inquiry noted, by reworking, rather than downgrading, the contaminated WPC80, Fonterra recovered about $150,000. The cost to the company and the reputational damage for New Zealand magnified this figure many times over," Reilly said in his review.

The inquiry found that by the time of the incident, Fonterra had done little "beyond the formal establishment of systems and processes to foster such a food safety culture."

"Fonterra also acknowledges this," it said. "It recognises that its board and senior management could have done more to elevate the profile and priority of food safety. The question is whether the inquiry can be satisfied that, as a result of the incident, Fonterra is now committed to a stronger culture of food safety and quality. From changes already under way and the determination with which Fonterra is implementing them, the answer is yes."





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