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Tainted formula passed tests pre export, says manufacturer

By Jane Byrne , 18-Feb-2009
Last updated on 18-Feb-2009 at 15:39 GMT

Health and safety officials in South Korea said that they found a meningitis causing bacteria in a French baby formula product but the company in question said the product was deemed safe following tests.

The Korean National Veterinary Research and Quarantine Service (NVRQS) said it detected a strain called enterobacter sakazaki in a shipment of 135 kilograms of canned organic formula imported last month from French producer, Vitagermine.

However, the Bordeaux-based formula manufacturer said that the batch of Babynat had been analysed prior to shipment by external laboratories in accordance with EU standards: “These analyses did not reveal any bacteria.”

E. sakazaki has been classified as a harmful strain of bacteria by the World Health Organization (WHO). It is said to pose health risks for people with weak immune systems and newborn babies. The bacteria, which usually affect babies under five months old, can cause meningitis and enteritis and in serious cases lead to death.

According to the NVRQS eight shipments of the product weighing a total of 1,492 kilos have been imported into South Korea since December 2007 and six of these shipments, totalling 1,222 kilos, reached the market.

Further checks

The Korean inspectors said they are checking another 135kg package of the formula that arrived last week for similar contamination.

Vitagermine added that, as a precautionary measure, it is undertaking verification of all its products in close collaboration with the French authorities.

Market value

Food makers have speared opportunities in the market for milk formulas that meet the dietary needs of infants and counter-balance deficiency needs. The European infant formula market alone is estimated to be worth about €600m.

However, infant formula has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons recently after it emerged that milk powder for infants in China was found to have been contaminated with melamine, and US produced infant formula also was found to contain the chemical, albeit at levels too low to pose any public health risk.

Safety controls

Following the Chinese scandal, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) urged infant formula manufacturers to invest further in safety controls in order to regain public confidence.

Patti Rundall, policy director of Baby Milk Action, a group which campaigns to promote breast-feeding and to make formula feeding safer, said that infant formula is not a sterile product and is not being tested enough to ensure its safety.

And she told FoodProductionDaily.com that parents need to be made more aware of the potential risk of infection involved when opting for artificial feeding.

Jorgen Schlundt, director of the WHO food safety department, said: "While breastfeeding is the ideal way of providing infants with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development - it is also critical to ensure that there is an adequate supply of safe powdered infant formula to meet the needs of infants who are not breastfed.”