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China halts import of New Zealand milk powder because of botulism bacteria

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(CNN) — China has halted all imports of milk powder from New Zealand and Australia after a company in New Zealand disclosed that three batches of an ingredient used in sports drinks and baby formula tested positive for a strain of bacteria that causes botulism.

The New Zealand-based Fonterra Group said Saturday that three batches of its whey protein tested positive for the Clostridium botulinum bacteria. Those batches weren’t for use in Fonterra-branded products, but they said companies that used the whey protein in their products might issue recalls.

Fonterra, the world’s largest dairy exporter, said it had warned companies that bought the whey protein about the problem. “As a result, these customers are urgently investigating whether any of the affected product, which contains a strain of Clostridium, is in their supply chains,” the company said.

Three of those clients have told Fonterra that their products are safe.

“Our technical teams have been working closely this weekend with Coca-Cola, Wahaha, and Vitaco and have established that the process used to manufacture their products would kill the bacteria that was in the affected whey protein concentrate,” Gary Romano, Fonterra’s managing director of NZ Milk Products, said in a company statement.

But China — where at least six babies died from tainted milk powder in 2008 — has halted all imports of milk powder from New Zealand, New Zealand officials said.

Dairy is a key industry in New Zealand, making up about 3 percent of its GDP. Speaking on television network TVNZ, Trade Minister Tim Groser said Chinese authorities acted “absolutely appropriately.”

“It’s better to do blanket protection for your people,” Groser said. The Trade Ministry said Australia, Malaysia, Saudia Arabia, Thailand and Vietnam also imported the product.

Botulism can be fatal, with symptoms typically beginning within 36 hours of consuming contaminated food. The infection can result in paralysis and respiratory failure, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

In the 2008 scandal, milk powder was contaminated with melamine, a chemical commonly used in laminates, wood adhesives and flame retardants that can be used to mimic high-protein additives. Chinese authorities arrested more than 18 people and executed two in the contamination scandal, which saw thousands sickened in addition to the infant deaths.

The company involved, Sanlu Group, was partially owned by Fonterra. Sanlu group later filed for bankruptcy.

Two years later, a Fonterra-supplied company in China faced scrutiny over claims that their milk powder led to premature sexual development in infant girls. At the time, Fonterra said it remained “100 percent confident about the quality of its products.”

By Emma Lacey-Bordeaux

CNN’s Mitra Mobasherat contributed to this report.