Mice at two Auckland food distribution centres to blame for damaged baby food pouches

Holes discovered in baby food products across the shelves of several supermarkets were caused by "significant rodent damage" due to a mice infestation at a distribution centre, officials say.

On Sunday, Woolworths NZ issued a precautionary nationwide recall of three brands of squeezable baby food pouches - Smiling Tums, Only Organics and Natureland  - sold in Countdown, SuperValue and Fresh Choice stores after punctured products were found in seven supermarkets across Auckland and Napier.

"Any customer who has bought Smiling Tums, Only Organics or Natureland baby pouches is asked to return the product to their nearest store for a full refund.  The precautionary recall includes all dates, all flavours and all batches of these products," said a statement by Countdown.

It revealed it was likely the baby food had been nibbled by rodents at two of Woolworths' Auckland food distribution centres, after evidence of mice activity was discovered.

A Countdown spokeswoman confirmed to Newshub that the company's distribution centres were thoroughly checked by MPI's food safety compliance officers over the weekend. The investigations found just 11 of more than 28,000 pallets had been impacted by the infestation.

Only a few boxes in each pallet had been damaged by the rodents.

The company's pest control provider has since confirmed the damage was a "one-off, targeted and isolated issue".

"Unfortunately it seems some mice have taken a liking to the baby food and have been drawn inside due to the really wet weather we've had," the spokeswoman told Newshub.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) told Newshub that "significant rodent damage" was to blame for the punctured baby food pouches. The ministry previously revealed about 30 damaged products were discovered on the supermarket shelves.

"Damage ranged from single holes to large holes which were clearly caused by rodents. At one of the sites there was evidence of localised nesting activity," the MPI spokesperson told Newshub.

"Damage to outer packaging of a box of chocolate and a box of glass bottles of cordial was found at one of the distribution centres. As the product involved has not reached shelves for sale yet, no recall was necessary."

The spokesperson confirmed that a deep clean of the distribution centre has been completed and additional traps have been installed.

The punctured pouches were initially treated as a police matter due to suspicions of deliberate tampering.

"We're working with MPI and our pest control provider to make sure we're doing everything we can, and will of course take any further advice on what else can be done," said the Countdown spokeswoman.

MPI confirmed that "removing potential risk" is the current focus and its working to understand how the infestation occurred.

Woolworths NZ has had very few customer queries relating to the damaged baby food and is in the process of ensuring customers are aware of the recall, the spokeswoman said.

"We have really strict pest control in place in our distribution centres and always have had."

The punctured baby food pouches, sold at Countdown, Fresh Choice and SuperValue stores, were discovered on the shelves of seven Woolworths NZ-owned supermarkets across Auckland and Napier.
The punctured baby food pouches, sold at Countdown, Fresh Choice and SuperValue stores, were discovered on the shelves of seven Woolworths NZ-owned supermarkets across Auckland and Napier. Photo credit: Google Maps

It's crucial that mice are kept away from food as their saliva, urine and droppings contain harmful microbes that can contaminate products and packaging.

Speaking to Stuff, New Zealand Food Safety director of compliance, Gary Orr, said contamination can be "particularly significant" for infants.

"We ask that parents check every squeezable baby food pouch in their home to ensure it is not affected by the recall," he told the outlet, adding that none of the affected pouches were exported.

Countdown has reiterated that the products should not be consumed whether they have been damaged or not, due to the potential contamination.

In a statement on Sunday, Countdown's General Manager for food safety, Kiri Hannifin, said the company sincerely apologises to customers for the unease the damaged products may have caused.

"As a mum myself, I know the safety of the food you feed your baby is the most important thing. We sincerely apologise for any distress caused to our customers, our suppliers and your families," she said. 

There have been no reports of illness associated with the baby food.