By: Suzanne Osborne, Ph.D
Thirty-eight tonnes: That was the amount of whey protein recalled around the world by the New Zealand dairy company Fonterra on August 3, 2013. The company was reacting to evidence that the product was contaminated with the bacteria that cause botulism. Even tiny amounts of the botulism toxin, which is produced by the Clostridium bacteria, rapidly shuts down the body’s nervous system, causing paralysis that can lead to death. There are few treatments available and it can take several months to recover from botulism. It is therefore critical to prevent the contamination of food before it reaches the consumer.
Three weeks after Fonterra’s recall, however, independent testing confirmed that the whey protein was safe.1 The botulism scare had been a false alarm, and the entire industry sighed in relief.
This recent contamination scare should come as no surprise. Botulism outbreaks may well be inevitable until we increase our knowledge of the risk factors for contamination, provide adequate guidelines and develop better testing methods.