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Current as of 18/09/14 08:00AM NZST

Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Fonterra chiefs get 'frank and thorough' grilling

Fonterra chairman John Wilson (l) and chief executive Theo Spierings arrive at the Beehive for a ministerial meeting this morning. Photo / Audrey Young
Fonterra chairman John Wilson (l) and chief executive Theo Spierings arrive at the Beehive for a ministerial meeting this morning. Photo / Audrey Young

Fonterra executives have emerged from meeting at the Beehive with Government ministers, saying it had been a "frank and thorough" discussion but the Government has made it clear Fonterra will not escape a more intensive probe by relying on its own inquiries into the whey contamination problem.

After the meeting, Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce said Fonterra had updated it on its tracking of contaminated product and set out what its two internal inquiries would cover.

"They gave Ministers a commitment they were determined to get to the bottom of things. We advised them in turn that that was good, but the Ministry of Primary Industries and possibly a further investigation would be held by the Government."

Ministers Mr Joyce, Trade Minister Tim Groser and Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy met with Fonterra's chief executive Theo Spierings and board chair John Wilson and Mr Spierings said afterwards Fonterra would be open about the findings of its two inquiries when they were completed.

Mr Joyce made it clear he was sceptical about any assurances or the results of inquiries from Fonterra, saying that the questions the Government had did not necessarily coincide with those Fonterra had.

"We will be thoroughly testing any issues we have a concern about and that the public has a concern about. That is our job."

Asked if he accepted Mr Spierings assurance that there was no longer a food safety issue out there, Mr Joyce said Mr Spierings had given his view on lots of things. "But it's fair to say the meeting wasn't a meeting for him to tell us everything was fine and for us to then say 'thanks very much' and wander on our happy way."

He said the meeting was for Fonterra to give an update "but it was never going to be the answers to the questions that we want answered. It is nice to get his view, but we will be testing everything pretty thoroughly."

He said the Government's relationship with Fonterra was "pretty much as you'd expect."

While it was a major company for New Zealand there was no doubt it had stumbled and Fonterra knew it had work to do to rebuild confidence in its systems.

Although Fonterra set out its timeline on testing and reporting the contaminated product, which Mr Speirings said showed no undue delay, Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy said the Government did have concerns and questions about the apparent delay.

"There is still some concern about exactly what went on, and when."

He said MPIs inquiry would look into that more fully to see whether there were any breaches of food safety reporting regulations.

Mr Guy said the meeting had been a frank discussion.

"I expressed my disappointment about the mistakes that occurred and they were sorry for the mistakes that occurred. Of course, we all have those questions that we want answers to and we will work through those in the appropriate way."

He said MPI had started work on its own investigation, and Mr Guy would brief Cabinet on that next Monday, when Cabinet was likely to decide whether a further probe was required.

Mr Spiering also defended the decision to use the product after initial testing in March raised sufficient concern to prompt further testing, saying that although the levels of clostridium were unusually high for New Zealand they were well within the required levels.

- NZ Herald

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