Toward the end of May this year, Kate began giving her six-month-old daughter solids for the first time. Among them, a Heinz Farex Breakfast on the Go pouches that she’d purchased from their local supermarket.
The Sydney mum squeezed the ‘Apple and Oatmeal’ into a bowl ready to warm for her little one, but out with the oats came “thick black leaves” of what appeared to be slimy mould.
Kate* says she’d stored the product correctly, and that it was well within its expiry date.
“I just thought, ‘Oh my God! That’s disgusting,” Kate told Mamamia. “When I phoned [Heinz consumer service] to complain, they said occasionally food rots that way, with the black lumps, when air gets through little holes in the packaging. They knew what I was talking about.
“They said, ‘We always recommend that you never squeeze the product directly into their mouth.’”
The product’s packaging promotes the same message: “To serve cold, simply squeeze into a bowl or onto a spoon,” it reads.
“My baby’s still really little, so I would have done that anyway,” Kate said. “But I do have a 20-month-old and he definitely would have grabbed one of them and eaten the whole thing. You see toddlers everywhere, squeezing them into their mouths.”
But more than the experience itself, what shocked Kate most was that several weeks later she saw an animated television commercial for a new range of transparent Heinz for Baby food pouches - part of the brand's ‘Clearly Honest Food’ campaign.
You may have seen it. A baby airport security officer checks a baby traveller’s bag, inspects the food pouches inside and sends him on his way. As the baby holidaymaker leaves, he's shown sucking on one of the pouches - straight out of the tube and into his mouth.
“I understand that companies can’t guarantee their food will be perfect all the time,” Kate said. “But it’s the TV ad that’s the annoying thing to me, because they’re promoting that these are cool things that kids can eat themselves, but clearly they shouldn’t be. It’s a total mixed message.”
While it’s important to note that it cannot be confirmed precisely what the substance in Kate’s Farex pouch was (she says Heinz never asked her to return the product to them for analysis, just for images), the consumption of mould does carry health risks.
Some varieties can cause allergic reactions and respiratory problems, while a few in the right conditions, can produce "mycotoxins", poisonous substances that over time can make you ill.
As University of Sydney biologist Ailsa Hocking and University of Tasmania Food Microbiologist Tom Ross explained via The Conversation, not all moulds on food will produce these harmful chemicals, but without the benefit of a microscope and laboratory it’s difficult to determine either way.
“Given the risk to your health it’s best to take a very cautious approach to visible mould growth on any food,” the pair wrote.
Andrew Daddo owns up to a parenting fail: he stills packs his kids’ lunch box. (Post continues below.)
More than two months after her initial complaint to Heinz, Kate says the company sent her an apology letter - unsigned - and a $5.00 voucher. While she says the consumer services agents had been “concerned and sweet” over the phone, Kate was left feeling frustrated by the company’s gesture.
“The response was totally out of proportion to the fact that a little baby who was trying solids for the first time could have ended up getting sick,” she said.
“If you do buy them - and I’m sure most mums have, here or there - you should feel safe that you can use them.”
In a statement issued to Mamamia, a Heinz Australia spokesperson said that Heinz's manufacturing process involves many strict checks, and that the company has not received any other complaints of this nature relating to these products.
"Our recent reviews indicate that there were no manufacturing issues with the batch in question. We therefore believe that it is highly unlikely that any spoilage has arisen during the manufacturing process," the spokesperson said.
"It is most likely that any mould that has occurred would be due to damage to the pouch within the supply chain to the consumer."
Addressing the commercial, the spokesperson added, "the advertisement is a fictitious, animated scenario in which a toddler takes on the role of an adult customs officer at an airport. Feeding from a spoon remains the recommended method of feeding a toddler or baby food from a pouch."
* Name has been changed at interviewee's request.