Fonterra pleads guilty over botulism scare charges

WELLINGTON (AFP) - New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra said Thursday it had pleaded guilty to food safety charges brought after a botulism scare last year that prompted global recalls of baby formula.

While the scare turned out to be a false alarm, the Ministry of Primary Industries laid four charges against the company, including exporting a product that did not meet relevant standards and failing to tell authorities about a potential problem as soon as possible.

Fonterra said it would not contest the charges, which each carry a maximum penalty of NZ$500,000 (S$539,510).

"We have entered guilty pleas," Fonterrra spokeswoman Maury Leyland told public radio.

The move comes as Prime Minister John Key prepares to visit China next week for meetings with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang designed to ease any lingering concerns over dairy exports.

The sector is crucial to New Zealand's economy, with dairy exports in January alone totalling about NZ$1.7 billion, almost half of which went to China.

The scare erupted in August last year when Fonterra announced a whey protein used in baby formula and some other products had tested positive for a bacteria linked to botulism, which can cause paralysis or death.

It led to infant formula being pulled off shelves from China to Saudi Arabia before subsequent tests determined the bug was actually another, non-toxic, bacteria strain.

The episode dented New Zealand's reputation for producing the gold-standard formula that commands top prices in lucrative Asian markets, and Fonterra said steps had already been taken to ensure it could not happen again.

"Food quality and safety remain our top priority, and are fundamental to our business," Leyland said.

"New Zealand's dairy food production and safety systems have been affirmed by both the (Fonterra) board and government inquiries as being as safe as any in the world."

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