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Wyeth Accused of Infant Formula Cover-Up Try in Philippines (DJ)

Source: Dow Jones Newswires

Manila, Jun. 27 - Breast-feeding advocates who tipped off authorities prompting them to recall millions of cans of infant formula made by U.S.-based Wyeth alleged Wednesday that the company tried to cover up possible product contamination due to rain.

The Bureau of Food and Drugs last week ordered a recall of 4.3 million cans and cartons of Wyeth's powdered baby milk may have been contaminated last year after exposure to damp wooden pallets in Wyeth's warehouse south of Manila.

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

He added: "They should have admitted to it and they should have recalled all their products publicly and made a report."

Wyeth has insisted the quality of the milk powder wasn't affected, and that only the packaging had been damaged. It added in a statement last week that no illnesses have been reported to Wyeth because of the affected products.

Nona Andaya-Castillo, director of the Nurturers of the Earth and Elvira Henares-Esguerra of the Children for Breast-feeding Inc. released copies of an alleged July 27, 2006, memo by a Wyeth executive in the Philippines ordering a quality spot check of products in its warehouse as well as on store shelves and to "hold, segregate and send back to Wyeth Philippines" affected products.

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 - said 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 said.

Responding to the allegations, Wyeth said its sales people regularly check its products in the market.

"Products are routinely returned by retailers due to cosmetic reasons such as dents and scratches on the can," it added.

Wyeth said it has ordered the recall of more products in the process of reconciling data. It wasn't immediately clear how many more units of its Bonna, Bonakid, Bonamil, Promil, Promil Kid, Promil Gold and Progress Gold brands were being recalled.

Last week, the company said contrary to the BFAD's estimate that 4.3 million cans and cartons may have been affected, 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. The public wasn't notified about the recall because it stemmed only from a cosmetic problem and posed no health risk to consumers, she added.

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

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