“Although the initial likely identification of C. botulinum proved not to be a food safety risk, the significant impact of the recall stress-tested a great many systems across our company’s business,” she says. “Now we are using the lessons and improvements from this event to enable us to take a leadership position in product traceability and food safety and quality in the global food and dairy industries.”
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Spierings is quick to concur. “As a global leader in supplying dairy nutrition, I am confident that our action plan will make us even stronger,” he says. “Fonterra is committed to providing high quality dairy products to our customers and to people around the world, and to putting food safety above everything else we do.”
Leake is a food safety consultant based in Wilmington, N.C. Reach her at Llleake@aol.com.
Botulism and Babies: It’s Not About Formula
The likelihood of getting infant botulism from infant formula is extremely rare, says Eric Johnson, ScD, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Department of Bacteriology. A respected scientist whose 30 years of research focuses on Clostridium botulinum and its toxins, Dr. Johnson has been providing expertise to Fonterra Cooperative Group Ltd. relative to its whey protein concentrate recall.
“Infant botulism almost always comes from other sources, such as vegetables or dust,” Dr. Johnson emphasizes. “There is only one reported case of infant botulism linked to the consumption of infant formula in medical literature. In this case the result was inconclusive, with experts noting that the illness might well have been caused by sources other than the infant formula.”
C. botulinum is a spore-forming bacterium and the spores are highly resistant forms of the organism that are prevalent in nearly every region of the world. To grow, these bacteria require an oxygen free environment that is warm and moist. C. botulinum bacteria are commonly found in soil, dust, and some marine environments, so most people are exposed to the spores likely on a daily basis.
Like plant seeds, spores can lie dormant for years. Spores are not threatening until they encounter an adequate environment for growth. The spores that germinate produce the deadly botulinum toxin, which is the most poisonous substance known. (The affected Fonterra WPC 80 was potentially contaminated with spores of C. botulinum, not with toxin.)
Since C. botulinum is present in the environment, many foods do become contaminated with the spores. “Most of these foods are vegetables and associated foods that contact the soil,” Dr. Johnson points out. “The number of spores in infant formula is either non-existent or extraordinarily few and so the likelihood of getting infant botulism from infant formula is extremely rare.
“Indeed, it is possible that the spores are there but they’re at extremely low concentrations because milk has, it’s been estimated, only one spore per liter when they are there,” he continues. “The number of spores in a food correlates with the likelihood of coming down with the illness.”
The number of spores required to cause infant botulism is not known, but based on honey studies it’s thought to be as low as 10 spores on ingestion up to much more—100 spores or more. “So in infant formula, the number of spores present is generally much lower than the dose required to lead to disease,” Dr. Johnson says.
There are likely less than 150 cases of hospitalized infant botulism globally each year, but about 70 percent of them occur in the U.S., Dr. Johnson says. “That’s probably because of the high incidence of the type of C. botulinum spores that cause infant botulism and the rigorous surveillance practices in place in this country.”