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School children consumed recalled Fonterra dairy protein

A Fonterra milk tanker arrives to Fonterra's Te Rapa plant near Hamilton August 6, 2013. REUTERS/Nigel Marple
A Fonterra milk tanker arrives to Fonterra's Te Rapa plant near Hamilton August 6, 2013. REUTERS/Nigel Marple

By Jackie Range

AUCKLAND (Reuters) - Students at a high school in New Zealand consumed protein drinks containing whey concentrate which had been recalled by dairy giant Fonterra, putting them at risk of botulism.

But Fonterra, which has come under fire amid a widespread contamination scare, said no illnesses had been reported and there was no health risk to the students at Palmerston North Girls' High School.

The company, which had provided the whey protein to the school from its product development center, had previously assured consumers that all products containing the tainted ingredient had been withdrawn from markets.

The school had asked for the product from Fonterra for a science project to make "smoothie" fruit drinks and it had been supplied in February.

"I am disappointed and concerned to learn of this incident," said Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings.

"While I realize that agreeing to provide the whey protein concentrate to the school for their project was well-intentioned, providing product from the Innovation Center in this way should never have happened."

"I can fully understand this may cause some anxiety in the school community and on behalf of everyone at Fonterra, I want to say how sorry we are that this has happened."

The world's largest dairy exporter has been in damage control mode since revealing at the weekend the contamination that led to product recalls in China, New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere in Asia.

The New Zealand government is auditing and monitoring the company, which has promised internal investigations into how a dirty pipe at one of its plants had infected the whey protein with a bacteria that can cause the potentially deadly disease.

On Thursday, Fonterra found that the protein concentrate had been provided to the school in February. It informed the school on Friday, after telling the Ministry of Primary Industries late on Thursday.

In March, the company found that some concentrate was contaminated, confirming in July that it contained a harmful strain of bacteria.

Minster of Health Tony Ryall said any illness from consuming the product was highly unlikely, and that the students were not at risk.

(Reporting by Jackie Range; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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