Fonterra NZ Milk Products boss, Gary Romano, has resigned “with immediate effect” less than two weeks after news broke that 38 tonnes of whey protein concentrate (WPC) manufactured by the company could be contaminated with botulism-causing Clostridium botulinum.
In a statement issued earlier today, the New Zealand-based dairy cooperative announced that Romano, who joined Fonterra in 2005, has resigned as managing director of NZ Milk Products – the Fonterra business responsible for the manufacture of the affected products.
Fonterra CEO, Theo Spierings, confirmed that he had accepted Romano’s resignation, but failed to go into the reasons behind his sudden departure.
“Gary has made a significant contribution during his time at Fonterra and we respect his decision,” said Spierings, who will temporarily take charge of NZ Milk Products operations.
Romano is the first senior executive to leave Fonterra since it issued a food safety alert to customers on 2 August over concerns that three batches of WPC potentially-contaminated with Clostridium botulinum may have entered the supply chain.
Federated Farmers of New Zealand Dairy chairman, Willy Leferink, voiced his astonishment at Romano’s resignation - branding it “premature.”
“It was a very big surprise for us because the enquiries into the whole situation haven’t even started,” Leferink told DairyReporter.com.
“We are very sorry to see him leave, he was a real sharp shooter, and he’s been fantastic for Fonterra.”
“There has been a lot of pressure from the media and enormous public pressure. It has obvious become too much for him. He obviously doesn’t want the responsibility," said Leferink.
Alert delay concerns
The three WPC batches in question were manufactured at Fonterra’s Hautapu processing facility in New Zealand in May 2012.
Fonterra first identified a quality issue in March 2013, before additional “extensive testing” identified the “potential presence” of Clostridium botulinum – a bacterium that can cause the potentially fatal illness, botulism.
As a result of the discovery, multiple recalls of potentially-contaminated products have been initiated across Australasia, Asia and the Middle East.
Concerns have been raised about the delay between the initial identification of the issue in March and the customer alert earlier this month by a number of influential figures in New Zealand, including the country’s Prime Minister, John Key.
Too early for resignations
Despite this, Leferink believes that it is far too early for heads to be rolling.
“I think it is a bit early for that because the enquiries haven’t even started, and it will be a few weeks before any conclusions can be made,” he said.
Last week, Fonterra chairman John Wilson announced the launch of an independent review into the cooperative’s performance “at the time of, and following, the manufacture of the affected whey protein concentrate.”
Following that announcement, the New Zealand Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) launched its own “compliance investigation” into the contamination scare.
The probe, which the MPI has estimated will take between three and six months, will examine whether “regulatory requirements under the Food Act and the Animal Products Act were met by all parties involved, or whether any parties may have committed any breaches or offences.”