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Current as of 19/09/14 02:20PM NZST

Dick Wilkins: Fonterra fiasco very Mickey Mouse

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Food safety sector came out of tainted whey scandal looking extremely inept, writes Dick Wilkins.

Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings acted on inconclusive test results. Photo / Richard Robinson
Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings acted on inconclusive test results. Photo / Richard Robinson

There is an old joke about an Arabian king asking his son what he wanted for his birthday. Somewhat surprised when his son asked only for a Mickey Mouse outfit, he bought him New Zealand.

Sadly, the ongoing revelations in the clostridium botulinum debacle make our food safety science look distinctly Mickey Mouse.

In just over a month we have moved from: AgResearch supposedly informing Fonterra of clostridium botulinum (or toxins thereof) in a batch of whey protein - to extensive overseas tests finding no such evidence - to AgResearch contradicting Fonterra and stating that they conveyed the message that their tests were inconclusive - to the latest staggering revelation that the AgResearch laboratory was not accredited to carry out the mouse bioassays after all.

Even worse, although there is some confusion over what is in various drafts of reports, is that only very amateurish testing was done, possibly involving five mice, only one of which died.

So many questions are raised by all of this that it is hard to know where to start.

Perhaps the first point that should be discussed is the nature of the mouse bioassays for botulin toxins that an accredited laboratory would perform.

It is a rather brutal procedure, in that laboratory mice are injected with the suspect material and then observed to see whether they die with symptoms characteristic of botulin toxins. The use of such a brutal test is justified on the grounds of the extreme health risks associated with a potential outbreak of clostridium botulinum poisoning.

To ensure that the mice are actually dying from a botulin toxin, accredited laboratories must follow a whole set of strict protocols, some of which involve adding each of botulin antitoxins (A to G) to test samples to ascertain if one of these can neutralise the test sample and protect mice from death.

If performed by an accredited laboratory, the results of the mouse bioassay are absolutely reliable and internationally accepted as "Gold Standard". Large numbers of mice are used, with all sorts of controls, and the use of antitoxins allows the pinpointing of the specific botulin toxin (eg, "A") that is present. If all the tests are negative, it probably means that if toxin is present at all, it is at such low levels that there is no health risk.

Contemplating an experiment with just five mice would be laughable.

So why did Fonterra believe the AgResearch laboratory was accredited? This is a mystery but in another twist to the story it turns out that AgResearch has a long history of testing for clostridium contamination in meat. Perhaps Fonterra knew this and just assumed any such testing would be done according to strict international standards.

Originally, the Meat Industry Research Institute of New Zealand at Ruakura did this testing, but in 1999 AgResearch took over the institute and moved the operations to Palmerston North.

Some of their research involved measuring clostridium contamination in meat packaged and stored in different ways. More specifically, in scientific publications they describe measuring botulin toxins using the mouse bioassay.

Based on AgResearch's "track record" in clostridium research it was perhaps reasonable to assume they were accredited. Perhaps they thought themselves that they were accredited in a de facto kind of way given their long history in the field.

But clearly they are not, which, incidentally, casts an interesting light on their own meat research in this area.

Whatever the case, the only accurate statement that has emerged from the mouse bioassay tests is that they were inconclusive.

The next part of the puzzle that beggars belief is that anyone at Fonterra would take action based on these results. Did they know only five mice were tested, did they think this was the extent of testing that sufficed for an accredited laboratory to report a result, did they not go back to AgResearch before making the call that the whey protein was positive for clostridium?

Rumours persistently circulate about staff cuts in Fonterra that have seriously depleted their complement of senior microbiologists. From the outside, it is difficult to work out whether this is actually the case, as in many such organisations the word "scientist" often means a person who used to be an active scientist but now sits at a desk wading through the paperwork that seems to engulf so many enterprises these days.

One can only conclude that the report from AgResearch bypassed those in Fonterra who could properly interpret the science (if indeed Fonterra still has such people) and for reasons of confidentiality, secrecy or whatever, it went to someone who lacked "contemporary skills" in this area.

Someone made an erroneous interpretation and passed the message up the chain to the CEO.

What is even more embarrassing about all of this is that the various twists and turns of the clostridium saga have been played out on the world stage.

Every international expert in the clostridium field will be following the story with considerable puzzlement and incredulity.

No longer are we protected by the slow, pedestrian manner in which information circulated in the old pre-internet days. Now, whoever wishes, anywhere in the world, can follow the sorry saga blow by blow. Not a good look.

So, in summary, we have a bit of a mess. Nobody comes out of it looking very good, science gets a bit of a pasting, scientists lose credibility and serious questions arise concerning the scientific capabilities of our largest company.

In other words, we look rather Mickey Mouse.

Dick Wilkins was professor of biology at the University of Waikato. He recently retired to Lyttelton.

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