Lessons from the botulism scare

By Ann Thompson

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The New Zealand dairy industry must improve its communications after the recent Fonterra scare.
The New Zealand dairy industry must improve its communications after the recent Fonterra scare.

Every dairy farmer will remember August, 2013. They will recall it, no matter which dairy processor they supply.

It's the month when milk payout forecasts gave hope to debt-ridden, drought-stricken farmers and milk quality issues hit the industry. While money is just that - cash - finding unwanted things in milk is a greater issue as New Zealand's reputation as a safe food provider is put on the line.

Everyone is aware that the problems involved DCD, nitrates and the 'botulinum' that wasn't. So, no need to expand on this.

The focus, instead, is on what Federated Farmers hopes the industry has learnt, dealing with the issues: communication and co-ordination.

Communication is key when any issue arises and co-ordination is required as the whole of the industry is likely to be affected.

Another area where future difficulties lie is the increasing sensitivity of analysers which are used to test the composition of milk.

Dry run

For us, the DCD product recall in January was the dry run for Fonterra, a bit like the Louis Vuitton Cup was for Team New Zealand.

It was the opportunity to learn how to give clear messages to media and to learn what customers wanted to know.

It was also an ideal time to go over risk management plans regarding residues, plant hygiene and product recall.

Unfortunately, lessons were not learnt in August. It was an opportunity lost, as Fonterra told media that there had been some microbiological contamination of a dairy commodity.

They were unprepared for the questions and therefore what the press and customers across the world very quickly heard was: New Zealand dairy products kill babies.

This conclusion brought the Government running, with the Prime Minister and Ministers' Tim Groser, Nathan Guy, Nikki Kaye, Steven Joyce and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) manning the pumps as borders closed on our dairy products.

It even united Parliament for a short while. That's how big this poorly given, misunderstood communication was.

Getting the message out

The Performance Juxtaposition site on the internet says that one of the barriers to communication is ourselves.

"Focusing on ourselves, rather than the other person can lead to confusion and conflict... Some of the factors that cause this are defensiveness (we feel someone is attacking us), superiority (we feel we know more than the other), and ego (we feel we are the centre of the activity)."

Fonterra needs to climb over this barrier and do better next time. We are done complaining about the communication advice given to Fonterra, as the company employed to do this must offer something special to Fonterra's business - we're just not sure what.

Next time, we're hoping Fonterra remembers that media and consumers may not hear the same message that is given. It's this hearing of messages that is crucial. Having a knowledgeable, articulate medical professional in the line-up at press conferences would help, given most of the issues faced can be perceived to be potential food safety ones.

All in together

The whole of New Zealand's dairy industry can be affected by dairy product recalls, and most were recently with product stalled at ports awaiting the outcome of Fonterra's investigation.

Their off-shore customers lumped all New Zealand dairy products into the one holding pen, regardless of the firm. This has been very costly to these firms, for no fault of their own.

Further funding is now required to enable dairy firms to sort out their customer relationships. The Government is part-funding this, though why the New Zealand taxpayer has to foot this bill, instead of Fonterra, is bewildering.

Getting information on product risks out to the entire industry is vital and needs to be done early. The Federation thinks the latest problems showed that pan-industry differences can be put to the side as DCANZ, the lobby group for dairy processors, jumped on this bandwagon early.

Science running away

There is no denying that certain levels of residues and certain types of bacteria are dangerous to human health, but it seems ridiculous that something that requires 5000 stars to line up creates a food safety panic worldwide.

In the same week when the botulism saga occurred, there was a serious case of listeria contaminating raw milk with serious consequences in Melbourne. It did not even make the headlines.

Technological advancements mean that minute amounts of any substance can be detected in milk - but to what end? Should we be leading the world in testing all bags of product, to the nth degree? Should we be identifying all bacteria found?

Getting this right is important for all dairy producers worldwide, as we generally abide by the same rules. The MPI, as regulators, are part of this worldwide rule-setting team and our experience this year will be of interest to all.

Product integrity (real or perceived) is paramount. The position New Zealand has rightfully claimed concerning food safety over the last few years is very high up the ladder.

Each party, from the farmer to the retailer, needs to develop proper protocols for adverse events, as each rung is part of this ladder. Fonterra is the biggest trader in world dairy product, so vigilance is needed as non-tariff barriers can be lucrative for foreign countries or operators.

Reviews

There are a number of reviews being carried out by MPI, Fonterra and the Government. The Federation looks forward to their outcomes.

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