By Naomi Tajitsu
WELLINGTON, Aug 3 (Reuters) - New Zealand's Fonterra , the world's largest dairy exporter, said on Saturday it had found bacteria which can cause botulism in some of its dairy products, prompting China to recall affected products.
New Zealand authorities said they were holding back some widely used infant formula products from supermarket shelves.
Fonterra said it had sold New Zealand-made whey protein concentrate contaminated with Clostridium Botulinum to eight customers, including food and beverage companies and animal stock feed firms, for possible use in infant formula, body building powder, and other products. None of its own branded products were affected, it said.
The Ministry of Primary Industries said Fonterra had told it the products in question were exported to Australia, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Saudi Arabia.
China, which imports most of its milk powder from New Zealand, asked domestic importers to recall any products which may have been contaminated by the bacteria, and ramped up scrutiny of New Zealand dairy products coming into the country.
Fonterra, New Zealand's largest company has been planning to launch its own branded milk formula in China, five years after melamine-tainted infant formula killed at least six there and made thousands ill.
Russia has suspended imports and circulation of Fonterra products, Russian ITAR-TASS news agency said on Saturday, quoting the country's consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor.
Fonterra said it was up to companies to announce recalls, adding that none had done so yet. It would not comment on the level of contamination found in the whey protein product.
"At this stage, no product recalls have been announced," Fonterra said in a statement.
It said three food companies, two beverage companies and three animal stock feed manufacturers were affected.
Chinese state radio said Fonterra was notifying three Chinese firms affected by the contamination.
China's product safety agency said it had asked New Zealand to take immediate measures to "prevent the products in question from harming the health of Chinese consumers".
"The administration has also asked importers to immediately recall any possibly contaminated products and has required all local quarantine and inspection bodies to further strengthen inspection and supervision of New Zealand dairy products exported to China," the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said in a statement.
Clostridium Botulinum is often found in soil. The Fonterra case was caused by an unsanitary pipe at a processing plant.
The bacteria can cause botulism, a potentially fatal disease which affects the muscles and can cause respiratory problems. Infant botulism can attack the intestinal system.
The Ministry of Primary Industries said five batches of Karicare formula manufactured in New Zealand for babies aged six months and older were produced using the contaminated product.
Karicare is made by Nutricia, which operates in New Zealand, and supplied by Fonterra. The brand is popular in China.
The MPI said it had been informed by Nutricia that one batch was on a ship, another was in storage in Australia, while the remaining three were in a warehouse in New Zealand.
All of these products would be held back from the market and the MPI advised against using them.
"Since the levels necessary to cause illness are small, our focus now is on establishing whether any product available in markets is affected at all," an MPI spokesman told Reuters.
FONTERRA CHIEF TRAVELS TO CHINA
Fonterra is a big supplier of wholesale milk powder to Chinese dairy firms and also supplies multinational food and beverage companies.
It said there had been no reports of any illness linked to the affected whey protein, and that fresh milk, yoghurt, cheese, spreads and UHT milk products were not affected.
The company said Fonterra CEO Theo Spierings would travel to China from Europe at the weekend to discuss the issue.
China has started to tighten dairy import regulations to improve overall food safety. In recent weeks, Beijing has introduced regulations restricting the operations of smaller infant formula brands.
Foreign-branded infant formula is a prized commodity in China, where consumers are distrustful of domestic brands given a series of food safety scandals. Popular foreign brands include Nestle, Danone and Mead Johnson.
While Fonterra is a major supplier of bulk milk powder products used in formula in China, it had stayed out of branding after Chinese dairy company Sanlu, in which it had held a stake, was found to have added melamine to bulk up formulas in 2008.