Executives at dairy giant Fonterra have expressed relief after it was revealed that a false test reading triggered the botulism scare that led to a recall of infant formula around the world.
But a column at the Science Media Centre raises questions as to how the testing regime used by Fonterra returned results for the potentially lethal Clostridium botulinum.
It quotes Trade Minister Tim Groser:
“The consequences of this particular false positive have been very grave and we want answers as to why on earth this happened,” trade minister Tim Groser said yesterday.
Microbiologists approached by the SMC said that clostridium botulinum and C. sporogenes, the safe strain mistaken for it, are very similar, differing by just one gene.
Nevertheless, standard testing should have confirmed whether the contaminating strain could produce toxin and was therefore really C. botulinum. The presence of toxin-producing genes can be detected in “hours to days” said University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles.
“The information Fonterra should have released initially was how much contamination they had actually identified. This would have allowed experts in the field to have made an educated guess as to the likelihood of any children becoming ill from consuming the contaminated product in the event it had contained a toxin-producing strain. This was information worried parents were desperate for.”
However, Dr Wiles and other scientists, such as AUT microbiologist, Dr John Brooks, said given what they thought they knew, Fonterra executives did the “the right thing in notifying its customers of the potentially hazardous product and recalling the protein concentrate”.
Marketing academics are quoted as saying Fonterra needs to carefully examine how this “fiasco” evolved the way it did.
“There was no need to mention unproven fears concerning the nature of the organism. They could have just mentioned that there was suspected contamination by an organism that had the potential to cause illness. This should have been followed up by rapid, extensive testing to determine the exact nature of the contamination.
“Sounding a strident alarm based on wrong information-essentially ‘crying wolf’-has the potential to weaken response to a genuine crisis some time in the future.”
Further commentary from scientists is available on the SMC website.