WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) -- New Zealand dairy cooperative Fonterra, which owns 43 percent of the company at the center of China's tainted infant formula scandal, was too slow to speak out about the problem, Prime Minister Helen Clark said Monday.
"I felt there was quite a long period of time before Fonterra spoke and I don't think that is satisfactory," Clark told radio network NewstalkZB.
The first contaminated formula identified in China was sold by Fonterra's Chinese joint venture partner, Sanlu Group Co., headquartered in Hebei province.
Since then, the industrial chemical melamine, which causes renal problems including kidney stones, has been detected in milk products from at least 22 companies throughout China. Nearly 12,900 children have been hospitalized and at least four have died.
Previously, Clark had supported Fonterra, saying it had tried to alert Chinese officials over the contaminated infant formula but had been blocked by Sanlu and local officials.
Fonterra chief executive Andrew Ferrier has said the company's three directors on the Sanlu board were first told of the problem on Aug. 2. He said Fonterra immediately began pressing for a product recall.
Clark told reporters that Fonterra initially alerted the New Zealand Embassy in Beijing about the problem "informally in a comment at a social function" on Aug. 14.
At an Aug. 22 meeting, Fonterra "advised the embassy that there was now confirmation of a Sanlu problem with contaminated product and they had met with local authorities in China urging a full product recall," New Zealand's Foreign Ministry confirmed Monday.
Clark said the embassy then moved "very vigorously to ask a lot of questions" over the next several days "so it could report fully to Wellington" on Aug. 31.
She noted she first knew about the issue on Sept. 5.
On Sept. 8 Clark convened a meeting of senior ministers at which she ordered officials to leapfrog local officials and immediately inform their superiors in Beijing.
Clark said the Chinese government had "acted promptly to address the issue" after New Zealand advised it of the problem and had "borne down on local authorities with a very heavy hand."