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Infant formula firm accused of recall cover-up
Time:02 Jul 2007
Posted by 21food.com

Wyeth, the Phillipines-based manufacturer of infant formula, has been accused of attempting a cover-up by the group which tipped off authorities that some of its products were contaminated.

Nurturers of the Earth, a breast feeding advocacy group, had informed the Bureau of Food and Drugs (BFAD) about the possible contamination risk, which led to a recall by Wyeth.

BFAD alleges that the Manila-based company failed to conduct sufficient tests and inform the public of the potential risks after recalling some products last year, according to the Associated Press.

The public allegations demonstrate the damage to reputations that can be inflicted when companies are perceived to attempt to keep consumers in the dark, exposing them to unnecessary risks.

Officials last year ordered the company to recall 4.3m cans and cartons of baby milk power after suspecting that the products had been exposed to damp wooden pallets.

Joshua Ramos, deputy director of BFAD, said last week that Wyeth only reported the possible contamination to officials "as an afterthought" after word of it spread on the Internet, according to reports by the Associated Press.

"They should have admitted to it and they should have recalled all their products publicly and made a report," he said.

Under BFAD rules, a company can independently decide to remove or correct a distributed product but is mandated to notify the bureau immediately.

Nona Andaya-Castillo, director of the Nurturers of the Earth and Elvira Henares-Esguerra of the Children for Breast-feeding released copies of an alleged memo dated 27 July 2006 by Wyeth, which ordered quality spot checks in warehouses and stores and to "hold, segregate and send back to Wyeth Philippines."

Orders were given by Wyeth to check "targeted brands", with those stained of discoloured to be set aside for 24 hours, according to the alleged memo.

Castillo and Esguerra allege those checks were only visual and did not involve microbiological tests to determine if products were contaminated.

"The issue here is not that a tragedy occurred or a potential tragedy was likely to occur but rather that the consuming public and the retail outlets were kept in the dark on the risk that they were exposed to," the advocates said.

According to a copy of the alleged memo distributed at a news conference, Wyeth ordered containers that showed deviation in appearance, such as staining or discoloration, to be set aside within 24 hours. The check on "targeted brands" was due to rains, the alleged memo showed.

Castillo and Esguerra - citing Wyeth insider sources and the memo obtained from them - alleged that Wyeth didn't conduct microbiological tests on the "affected brands" to determine the presence of harmful bacteria, and simply ordered a "visual" inspection.

"The issue here is not that a tragedy occurred or a potential tragedy was likely to occur but rather that the consuming public and the retail outlets were kept in the dark on the risk that they were exposed to," the breast-feeding advocates alleged.

Wyeth denies the quality of the milk powder affected, stating that only the packaging had been damaged. The company said that no illnesses linked to affected products have been reported to Wyeth, in a statement issued last week.

The manufacturer said its sales people regularly check its products in the market, and that products are routinely returned by retailers for cosmetic reasons such as dents and scratches on packaging.

Wyeth said more products have been recalled as part of the process of reconciling data. It wasn't immediately clear how many more units of its brands were part of the overall recall.

The company claims that despite official estimates that 4.3 million packages may have been affected, it estimates that 2.5 million units were exposed to the damp wooden pallets.

Nerissa Calimon, medical director at Wyeth, said the company voluntarily recalled 279 cans with the highest level of rust last July, but no public announcement was made because the problem was only cosmetic and posed not health risk.

Under BFAD rules, a company can independently decide to remove or correct a distributed product but is mandated to notify the bureau immediately.


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