Coke recalls Minute Maid in China after Fonterra botulism scare

By Ben BOUCKLEY contact

- Last updated on GMT

Picture Credit: Athrun/Flickr
Picture Credit: Athrun/Flickr

Related tags: New zealand, Milk

The Coca-Cola Company has recalled a Minute Maid line in China after New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra warned that whey protein used in the drinks could cause potentially fatal botulism.

Insisting the drinks are safe due to their manufacturing process, Coke said in a statement today:“To prevent such incidents from occurring again, we will strengthen our supervision of our suppliers.”

Stressing that product quality and safety were its top priorities, Coke said that use of 25kg of affected Fonterra whey protein concentrate (WPC 80) was limited to one batch of Minute Maid Pineapple Pulpy Milky made on March 5 2013.

Shipped to three provinces

But the numbers are still significant – 19028 cases produced at Coke’s Dongguan plant and shipped to three provinces, Yunnan (3273), Guangxi (788) and Guangdong (14967).

“These products are safe for consumption due to the ultra-high temperature (UHT) manufacturing process we use, and also the low acidity, which sanitizes the final products,”​ Coke said.

“In order to fully reassure consumers, we are co-operating with the government and actively recalling products from this single batch."

Fonterra said Sunday that products of three customers – Wahaha, Coca-Cola and Vitaco – using WPC80 were safe to consume due to treatment during manufacturing and their formulation.

MD for NZ Milk Products, Gary Romano, said:“In the case of Coca-Cola and Wahaha, the combination of low pH and UHT treatment gives us complete confidence that acid beverages and yogurts (pH <4.5) are safe.”

Blow for Fonterra

The news is a blow to Fonterra’s prestige among both customers and end consumers, given the firm’s strong growth in China on the basis of its solid reputation for product safety in the wake of the 2008 infant formula melamine scandal that touched Chinese dairy suppliers.

The firm reported EBIT of NZ $100m in H1 2013 with sales up 27% year-over-year, and Fonterra’s performance affects that of the New Zealand dollar, which bought 0.77 US cents on Friday, against a 2013 high of 0.86 back in mid May.

China has increased inspection and supervision at the border for New Zealand dairy products and said extra testing may be required – Kiwi PM John Key has accused Fonterra of a “staggering delay”​ over sounding the alarm, after initial tests in May 2012 showed problems with batches.

The three affected batches of Fonterra whey protein concentrate where manufactured in Hautapu, New Zealand, and reportedly passed through a dirty pipe. The firm said the WPC80 contained a Clostridium strain that had the potential to cause botulism.

'Massive internal investigation'

Asked for his thoughts on the scare, Professor Tony Hines, head of corporate and member services at Leatherhead Food Research, told "From a crisis management perspective the quicker and faster you can move to retain consumer confidence the better. The identification of the toxins associated with Cl. Botulinum is for specialist laboratories only and takes time.

"Any company would in receipt of positive results would seek to confirm these as quickly as humanly and microbiologically possible. I am quite sure there would have been a massive internal investigation to identify the ‘dirty pipe’. Prevention is always better than cure, so where did the dirty pipe come from?" ​he added.

Hines said he thought Fonterra CEO Theo Spierings' flight to China and apology was a "very positive and authoritative statement​", adding that given Fonterra and New Zealand's global ‘green and clean’ image "the corporate PR machinery will be working overtime to reassure consumer, investors, farmers and governments that they have quickly resolved this incident and that there is absolutely no chance of a similar incident occurring again".

"Whatever the cost, ‘owning the best truth’ is critical but they need to respond to the message, ensure their traceability is beyond question and that new product replaces the old on the shelves very quickly,"​ Hines added. "When the economy of a country depends on the global success of a company, it’s imperative that they convince the authorities, customers and consumers that their product is safe and will always be safe,"​ he said.

Botulism is a rare paralytic illness that stems from the botulinum toxin, and in severe cases can lead to paralysis of the breathing muscles and respiratory failure.

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