Fonterra 'sorry' for contaminated product scare

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionTheo Spierings: "Our highest priority, and that's what we are focused on right now, is to ensure the safety of the public"

The boss of New Zealand dairy firm Fonterra has apologised for the distress caused to parents because of a scare over contaminated products.

Theo Spierings was speaking in China after it emerged on Saturday that batches of whey protein contained bacteria that can cause botulism.

Contaminated products, including infant formula, were exported to a number of countries, including China.

Botulism is an extremely dangerous form of food poisoning.

"We regret the distress and anxiety which this issue could have caused,'' Mr Spierings told reporters in Beijing. "Parents have the right to know that infant nutrition and other products are safe.''

He added that Fonterra was committed to China and was working with regulators to address the problem.

China and Russia have moved to ban imports of the contaminated products.

Fonterra said it had received confirmation that China had not imposed a blanket ban on its products.

Delays questioned

Earlier on Monday, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key questioned why Fonterra, the world's largest dairy exporter, delayed raising the alarm over the contaminated products.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionNZ PM John Key expresses concern over the delay in raising the alarm

John Key said concerns were raised after a series of tests in May 2012.

"When you've got a company that's our largest company, our largest brand, our largest exporter that is the flagship for New Zealand and your whole business is about food safety and food quality you think they'd take such a precautionary view to these things and say if it's testing for some reason in an odd way that it would just be discarded until they were absolutely sure that its right," Mr Key said.

However, Mr Spierings addressed this by saying that the first sign of a problem only came to light after tests in March this year.

Fonterra said the bacteria came from a dirty pipe at a processing plant for whey protein concentrate.

It said the bacteria had been found in three batches of whey protein which had been used in Nutricia Karicare for infants.

Fonterra has exported the contaminated whey protein concentrate to China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Saudi Arabia.

So far, there have not been any illnesses reported related to the contaminated products.

China relies heavily on New Zealand for its imports of milk powder. The country experienced a tainted milk scandal in 2008 that killed six babies and made about 300,000 ill.

According to Chinese state media, nearly 80% of dairy products imported by China come from New Zealand.

New Zealand is the world's largest dairy exporter.

More on this story