The chairwoman of the Chinese dairy company that sold fatally contaminated infant milk formula says she acted on information supplied by Fonterra.
Former Sanlu chairwoman Tian Wenhua, 66, sentenced last week to life in prison, says a Fonterra-appointed director gave her a document stating the European Union's permitted levels of the industrial chemical melamine.
Fonterra chief executive Andrew Ferrier confirmed to the Herald yesterday that Tian had been given a document by a Fonterra board member. However, he said Fonterra was "vividly clear" to Sanlu that the only acceptable level of melamine was zero.
China's state news agency, Xinhua, has reported that Tian intends to appeal against her conviction for producing and selling false or substandard products.
Three other company executives received 15, eight and five-year sentences respectively. Two men were sentenced to death.
Xinhua said rather than stopping production of tainted products after the contamination was confirmed on August 1 last year, Sanlu decided to limit melamine levels to within 10mg for every kilogram of milk.
"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 kg of milk in the European Union," Xinhua said. "She said she had trusted the document at that time."
Mr Ferrier told the Herald a Fonterra representative had given Tian the document soon after the board was advised of the contamination on August 2.
"The context was when this whole thing broke there was an enormous amount of work going on to find out what melamine was and there was research all over the world about its contaminants, its danger," Mr Ferrier said. "There was information pulled up from Europe, from the US, everywhere."
Mr Ferrier would not name the director who supplied the information.
Fonterra had three directors on the Sanlu board: Bob Major, Mark Wilson and a Chinese national, Patrick Kwok.
Mr Ferrier said: "I do want to be crystal, crystal clear - although there was lots of information that was pulled up we were vividly clear to Sanlu that the only acceptable level [of melamine] was zero."
At no point did Fonterra tell Sanlu it was acceptable to keep producing to the melamine level in the report, he said. "Absolutely not, absolutely not."
A search yesterday by the Herald found an EU Commission decision on October 14 - after news of the crisis broke - which said all composite products originating from China, containing at least 15 per cent milk product and more than 2.5mg of melamine per kilogram, must be immediately destroyed.
However, an EU directive in 2002 relating to plastics materials that come into contact with foodstuffs said the specific migration limit for melamine was 30mg per kilogram. That was the suggested maximum safe level for consumption by an adult weighing at least 60kg.
The Beibei infant formula produced by Sanlu contained melamine at 2563mg/kg.
Mr Ferrier has said Fonterra had no knowledge of the criminal actions taken by the four Sanlu managers.
"We certainly would never have approved of these actions," Ferrier said.
"As we have stated throughout, Fonterra consistently pushed for a full public recall of contaminated product from August 2 when we learned of the contamination."