WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) -- New Zealand dairy trader Fonterra on Wednesday said it clearly told its Chinese partner that no amount of melamine was acceptable in its milk products but admitted giving the company a document outlining acceptable levels for the industrial chemical in milk sold in the EU.
Melamine-tainted infant formula produced by Fonterra's Chinese joint venture partner, Sanlu Group, and products made by dozens of other mainland dairy companies have been blamed for the deaths of six babies and the illness of nearly 300,000 others.
Fonterra chief executive Andrew Ferrier conceded one of its three directors serving on the Sanlu board gave the Chinese company an EU document suggesting a threshold of melamine "above zero was acceptable" in milk products in the European zone.
But the Fonterra official "made it crystal clear at the time that the only acceptable level was zero" when it came to Fonterra products, Ferrier said.
"We were consistent all the way through on that, and we were shocked to learn that they had sold any product that was above zero," he told New Zealand's National Radio.
"This is a contaminant ... . As a food company, you can only say zero is the only acceptable level," he said.
Fonterra, one of the world's largest dairy companies, owned 43 percent of Sanlu when the scandal erupted. The company was declared bankrupt in December.
Claims for compensation by parents whose children were sickened or died after drinking the contaminated milk intensified last week after a court handed down two death penalties and long prison terms for 19 other defendants charged in connection with the scandal, including former Sanlu chairwoman Tian Wenhua.
China's official Xinhua News Agency reported that Tian claimed during her trial a Fonterra-appointed director had given her a document showing the levels of melamine permitted by the EU.
Xinhua reported that rather than halting production of tainted products after the contamination was confirmed on Aug. 1 last year, Sanlu decided to limit melamine levels to within 10 milligrams for every kilogram of milk product.
"Tian said during her trial that she made the decision not to halt production of the tainted products because a board member, designated by New Zealand dairy product giant Fonterra that partly owned Sanlu Group, presented her a document saying a maximum of 20mg of melamine was allowed in every kilogram of milk in the European Union," Xinhua said.
"She said she had trusted the document at that time," it reported.
If Tian's claims were proved to be true, it could open Fonterra to lawsuits by families whose children were sickened or died from drinking the tainted milk.
Ferrier declined to name the director who provided the material to Tian, citing "security issues in China." He didn't elaborate.
Fonterra was responsible for alerting Chinese authorities to the tainted milk scandal in August, and by December had written off its $200 million investment in Sanlu.