Wellington, March 1
The Vegetable and Potato Growers Federation (Vegfed) today denied reports it kept information secret on the safety of the vegetable zucchini.
Chief executive Peter Silcock said the issue was not brought to Vegfed’s notice until February, "well after the events had occurred".
"As soon as we became (aware) of the problem we immediately began working with the Ministry of Health and Crown Public Health, Christchurch. We all agreed that issuing the information to the public would be alarmist and like warning people about a storm a week after it had passed," he said in a statement.
In January a naturally occurring toxin , cucurbitacin, produced by zucchini plants to deter pests, reached dangerous levels in some plants due to unusual weather conditions.
Affected zucchini, also known as courgettes, give off a pungent smell that has been described as similar to cat urine, and they have an extremely bitter taste.
Symptoms of cucurbitacin poisoning can include nausea, severe stomach cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting.
Nine people became ill from eating the vegetables in Christchurch and five in Auckland, though Auckland food safety investigation officer Adam Simpson said yesterday it was likely that others had been affected but had not reported it. Complaints had also been received in Whakatane and Northland.
A letter leaked to The Dominion newspaper showed Vegfed did not want the media to know about the toxin.
The federation chose not to publicise advice from a scientist that eating affected zucchini could cause "long-lasting harm".
The letter from federation executive officer Ron Gall said it was important to keep the problem under wraps.
"This issue has not reached the media and we want to keep it that way."
However Ian Shaw, the food safety scientist called in to look into the problem, told National Radio today Vegfed should have told consumers sooner.
"I think this sort of information should be given to the consumer. I think it’s quite important the consumer’s armed with information about the food that they eat if there’s any concern about it so that they can then make up their own minds whether they eat it or not."
Mr Silcock said today Vegfed was "confident that growers will recognise the problem and ensure the product is not offered for sale in the future".
NZPA WGT ab am km ©01/03/02 19-16NZ