Source of lead-contaminated cornflour traced

29 July 2004

The New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) is confident that the health risk for anyone who has consumed food from the affected batches remains extremely low. It is also confident that all affected products with unacceptable levels of lead as a result of contamination of imported corn have been recalled, says Director of Domestic and Imported Food, Tim Knox.

“We have, with the full cooperation of all the companies involved, traced where and when the three affected batches were used, and all products with unacceptable lead levels have been recalled. All other products that may have contained small amounts of the affected cornflour have been assessed by NZFSA experts. These assessments confirm that any lead that may be present would be within acceptable limits. These products pose no safety risk to consumers associated with the lead contamination of the cornflour.”

“We also believe that we have traced the source of the lead contamination. The information available to NZFSA points to contamination onboard the ship used to transport the corn from China as the most likely cause. The maize was imported due to a shortage of New Zealand-grown product at the time.”

NZFSA with assistance from New Zealand Customs and has determined that the vessel, MV Athena, transported lead concentrate between two Australian ports in June 2003, then shipped a cargo of logs to Japan and Korea. From there it travelled to China and took on the cargo of corn for shipment to New Zealand.

“Our investigations are continuing to try and determine whether there are other possible sources of lead contamination, but the most likely scenario is that the vessel was not properly cleaned after it unloaded the cargo of lead concentrate and/or before it loaded the corn. It is our understanding that it is standard practice for the crew to clean down holds between shipments, and that the hold is usually inspected by an independent person before approval is given to load the next cargo.

“While we can never be absolutely certain, we have no reason to believe that the contamination occurred in New Zealand. Once our investigation into the source of the contamination is complete, a report will be prepared and made available. We will be working with the shipping industry to make them aware of this issue, and consideration will be given to any further action that may be warranted once our investigation is complete.”

The contamination was found during testing by NZFSA as part of its Total Diet Survey. The manufacturer of the affected product, 100gm Robinsons Step Up Egg Custard, was immediately informed, and issued a recall notice for all batches, even though not all would have used the affected cornflour as an ingredient.

Other products to have been recalled are Pam’s Maize Cornflour 400 gm packets (Lot 3163, Best Before DEC 05; and Lot 3153, Best Before DEC 05) [South Island only]; Gilmours Maize Cornflour 5kg (Lot 3193) [South Island only]; and Edmonds Fielder’s Cornflour 300g with Best Before Dates 30.09.05 and 01.10.05.

Of the 105.78 tonnes of cornflour manufactured from the contaminated imported maize, 22.1 were exported to Australia (authorities there have been alerted and supplied with all information). Another 25.1 tonnes was exported to Fiji and NZFSA is working with authorities there as well as the two importers to assist in tracing where and how the product was used. 0.45 tonnes was used in the Robinsons egg custard, 4 tonnes in the recalled Pam’s and Gilmours products. Edmonds received 32 tonnes for use in Edmonds cornflour and White Wings cornflour (sold in Australia) and is recalling 17.5 tonnes of the Edmonds product, well above the amount used in the batches to ensure full recovery.

About a further 22 tonnes has been used as a minor ingredient in foods, diluting it to such an extent it would be within acceptable levels. Other batches of cornflour were milled from the contaminated corn, but were used in industrial and non-food products.

“While high levels of lead in food are unacceptable, it is important to remember that not all the cornflour in each batch may have been affected. In addition, the bulk of the product was used as an ingredient and, as such, makes up a small proportion of the food in which it has been used. Our assessment shows that, in all but the recalled products, lead levels would be within the acceptable limits for the foods concerned,” says Tim Knox.

“This event is an example of the challenges we face when dealing with imported foods. Six months ago we commissioned a strategic review of New Zealand’s import regime for food and food-related products. NZFSA is to shortly release a discussion document on this topic for public consultation. The document has been prepared by external experts who have reviewed how the import regime operates and raises issues for further discussion before recommendations are made to NZFSA.

“People have an opportunity now to provide input to our thinking and we would welcome their submissions,” Mr Knox said.

Ends

For further comment contact:

Tim Knox, Director Domestic and Imported Food

04 463 2651 or 021 403 990.