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China 'blocks' New Zealand milk powder imports over dairy botulism scare

China has halted all imports of New Zealand milk powder after bacteria that can lead to botulism was found in some dairy products, a New Zealand minister has said. Contaminated products have been sold to six countries.

China blocked all imports of the milk powder in response to the scare, New Zealand's Trade Minister Tom Groser said Sunday.

"The authorities in China, in my opinion absolutely appropriately, have stopped all imports of New Zealand milk powders from Australia and New Zealand," Groser told Television New Zealand.

"It's better to do blanket protection for your people and then wind it back when we, our authorities, are in a position to give them the confidence and advice that they need before doing that," he said.

China has not officially commented on any ban, although it said Saturday it had contacted New Zealand's embassy and asked it "to take measures to prevent the products in question from influencing the health of Chinese consumers."

China relies heavily on imported milk powder owing to consumer distrust in domestic products following a series of food safety scandals. In 2008 a tainted milk formula led to the deaths of six babies and made a further 300,000 unwell.

Almost 90 percent of China's milk powder imports come from New Zealand, meaning a prolonged ban could lead to a product shortage.

No illness reported

The reported ban comes a day after global dairy trade giant Fonterra announced it had exported contaminated New Zealand-made whey protein concentrate to eight customers in Australia, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Saudi Arabia.

It said that three batches of the whey product, which is used to make infant milk powder and sports drinks, have been found to contain the toxic bacteria Clostridium botulinum, which can cause botulism. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, followed by paralysis, and it can prove fatal if left untreated.

No one has reported to have been affected after consuming the contaminated whey product, which was made in May 2012.

Further recalls

Other nations including Russia reportedly responded Saturday by recalling products linked to the scare.

According to Russia's Ria Novosti news agency, Moscow was "recalling Fonterra's products, including infant formula, and advised Russian consumers not to buy the company's other products."

Dairy exports are a large contributor to New Zealand's agriculture-based economy. The dairy industry contributes 2.8 percent to New Zealand's GDP and makes up about 25 percent of its exports.

Fonterra is the world's largest dairy exporter.

ccp/hc (AFP, Reuters)