Botulism in New Zealand Milk Protein, Why Infants are at Most Risk – link to Cot Death


The main issue with infant formula is you have to have an even greater dedication to higher food safety standards than other products.“Katherine Rich

New Zealand’s reputation for being 100% pure has taken a nose dive with Fonterra’s announcement that Clostridium botulinum has been found in dried whey protein WPC80. The discovery has prompted Russia to follow China’s lead and ban all imports of Fonterra products (more here)

The potential contamination of Fonterra products with botulism occurred as a result of a dirty pipe at the company’s Hautapu plant, it says…link

According to Fonterra’s website the Hautapu plant has been manufacturing for more than 120 years, and is the headquarters for Fonterra’s protein and cheese technical teams. Sounds like a centre of technical excellent doesn’t it?

Astonishingly, Clostridium indicators were found as far back as May last year. But it has taken until this week to confirm that the type which produces botulinum toxin was present. Presumably all the food manufacturers who used this whey protein have also been doing their own testing but did Fonterra tell them in May 2012 there was a potential problem, or did it wait until now?

The types of products that have been contaminated include Nutricia Karicare follow-on formula products for children from 6 months old, Karicare Infant Formula Stage 1 (0-6 months) and potentially anything which includes whey protein such as energy drinks.

Botulinum exists in two forms- a vegetative, bacterial state and a spore-like stage that can be killed by adequate heating. The bug doesn’t grow in acidic environments so low acid foods are particularly susceptible. If conditions are right, the spores can grow (usually in very low oxygen environments) and multiply to produce deadly levels of neurotoxin. This toxin can cause gradual paralysis and respiratory failure.

Infant Botulism

There is another type of poisoning that affects children under the age of 12 months, deaths from which have sometimes been attributed to sudden infant death syndrome or “cot death”. Infant says

Infant botulism is a novel form of human botulism in which ingested spores of the bacterium Clostridium botulinum colonize and grow in the infant’s large intestine and produce botulinum neurotoxin in it. The action of the toxin in the body produces constipation, weakness (notably of gag, cry, suck and swallow), loss of muscle tone, and ultimately, flaccid (“limp”) paralysis. Affected infants have difficulty feeding and often, breathing.

To date most cases of infant botulism have been caused by ingesting the spores from dirt, or from eating honey. This is the reason why parents are told not to feed honey to children under the age of 12 months. Obviously the discovery of this organism in baby products has a significant public health implication for young children.

If there was ever a reason to breastfeed young children Fonterra has just reminded parents of it. Ironically, their announcement came during World Breast Feeding Week, supported by health educators across the globe.


We are appalled that hygiene standards could be so lax as to result in the growth of Clostridium in a milk processing plant. In this modern age, a “dirty pipe” simply should not happen, cleaning processes are automated. There must be an official enquiry into this hygiene failure and consideration given to bringing a food safety prosecution against Fonterra. This will set an example to other milk processors in the region and go a long way towards restoring confidence in the 4th largest milk exporter in the world.

We are disappointed that it took so long to confirm Botulinum species were present. Other countries understand the dangers of this type of bacterium in low acid foods – notably after the canned salmon deaths in the 70s, honey and more recently hazelnut purée used in yoghurt manufacture.

Disappointingly, Fonterra initially refused to say who this product has been supplied to putting the onus on its purchasers to make their own announcements, and depriving the public of the opportunity to make informed decisions.

Fonterra is still refusing to disclose which of its eight customers were potentially affected by the contamination, saying it was up to them and their regulatory authorities to make those decisions…
“We do not believe that it would be helpful. I know that there’s a lot of interest here and it’s a natural question to ask but … we do not believe that is what our role is here. Our role is to help our customers have the appropriate information,” he said…

Mr Romano said the time it took before the contamination was detected – the product was manufactured in May last year and it was not detected until July 31 this year – was consistent with modern day standards. link

Over the following hours Coca Cola and Dannone, some calf-feed producers and Karicare announced product recalls.

Damage limitation trip to China.

Chinese consumers are understandably twitchy about milk contamination after the Sanlu milk scandal, followed by New Zealand milk products coming under scrutiny after contamination by agrochemical DCD contamination took months to be announced.

Aug 3: Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings is heading from Europe to China this weekend for meetings with manufacturers who have used contaminated whey powder supplied by the New Zealand dairy giant for use in infant formula and other products. Link

Why China continues to import product from New Zealand is a mystery, perhaps it would do better to source most of it from the EC where farming practices and manufacturing practices are genuinely first world, and where food safety problems are identified and reported on rapidly – not months after the event.

Fonterra first became aware of the potential contamination in March of this year, 10 months after the dried product was manufactured, and subsequent testing revealed on July 31 the presence of Clostridium Botulinum. The bacteria take hundreds of variant forms with affects on milk products ranging from nothing through to food-spoiling and health risks. Link

Government distances itself from Fonterra

Trade Minister Tim Groser is promising a thorough investigation into the latest milk-contamination scare after Fonterra early yesterday announced that tests of its whey protein concentrate had returned positive for a bacteria that could cause botulism, a fatal form of food poisoning…

Groser and the Ministry of Primary Industries were unhappy with the delay in the information becoming public. The ministry said it “should have been notified sooner and we are discussing this with Fonterra”. Link

One source lists a range of food that can be affected by this bacteria, no doubt whey powder will now be added to the list.

Almost any type of food that is not very acidic (pH above 4.6) can support growth and toxin production by C. botulinum. Botulinal toxin has been demonstrated in a considerable variety of foods, such as canned corn, peppers, green beans, soups, beets, asparagus, mushrooms, ripe olives, spinach, tuna fish, chicken and chicken livers and liver pate, and luncheon meats, ham, sausage, stuffed eggplant, lobster, and smoked and salted fish.

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WSJ Blows the Lid on Fonterra Tainted Milk Scandal, NZ Government Knew Months Ago – updated

The Wall Street Journal has blown the lid on how long Fonterrra has known that New Zealand milk has been tainted with the melamine-related chemical ”Dicyandiamide, or DCD–a substance that in high doses is toxic to humans–in milk powder“. A three year long trial of the novel product only finished in New Zealand early last year.

It’s not looking good for the small dairying nation because it seems that the problem was known about at least as far back as September, two months before a half billion dollar stock market venture for the company in late 2012..

2 thoughts on “Botulism in New Zealand Milk Protein, Why Infants are at Most Risk – link to Cot Death

  1. ROFL, it looks like Fonterra were wrong. An US lab said it wasn’t botulinum at all but some harmless spoilage organism. All that fuss for nothing! so embarrassing! it makes the NZ food industry look like a bunch of piss ant amateurs. Geez and NZ had the effontery to accuse Sri Lanka of having poor lab standards.

  2. This idea that there is no way any food supply of NZ can ever be contaminated, or that anything factory produced is completely quality controlled is the bollocks … that is frequently reinforced towards people who are from overseas.
    While flatting I was frequently told that the water supply was so fantastic that there was no need to boil it! And that lakes with visible algal blooms and who knows what else in them … was “safe for swimming and you need to harden up”.
    Yet quite a few people I know from have gluten allergies or asthma. Seems like they didn’t get the memo on “harden up”.
    Health is something people have a right to be absolutely paranoid about.

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