Simon Page: It's time we lived up to our image

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Risk management plan vital to protect NZ and China in the event of another milk scare, writes Simon Page.

New Zealand's reputation abroad has taken a hammering. Photo / Natalie Slade
New Zealand's reputation abroad has taken a hammering. Photo / Natalie Slade

Is 100% Pure just a marketing slogan coined to attract tourists to New Zealand? No, it's much more than that. It's a brilliant assertion of New Zealand's image to the rest of the world.

It encapsulates our love of the outdoors, our high standards, our people, our way of doing things and is fundamental to our reputation. As Kiwis, we are fiercely proud of these things.

But in the last couple of weeks our national pride has taken a beating from media around the world. How could any of us not feel indignity at "100% Pure" being called a "festering sore" by the world's biggest polluter. Or that our Western compatriots in Britain and America held no punches either, jumping into the free-for-all against New Zealand.

Did a small batch of contaminated whey protein concentrate made by our largest company, and used by foreign multi-national food corporations, really set off a reputation crisis for the whole of New Zealand?

When the DCD issue in late January caused widespread panic in China and prompted sales across our "New Zealand Milk Bar" stores to fall to zero, I drew on my involvement with the World Civilisation Forum to research the underlying cause of the problem between New Zealand and China at the time.

Whilst DCD and food safety seemed the focus, it was soon clear that both sides were perceiving the issue in a very different way.

To NZ it was an economic and trade matter - DCD wasn't considered a food safety issue here because the science proved so. To the Chinese government it was a social and political problem - a contamination scare involving NZ milk in infant formula causing social disorder in a country where political stability is top of national security.

The Sino-NZ relationship is based upon its "4-firsts." It is a valuable political and economic asset accumulated by the consistent hard work of successive NZ governments. It is the reason why the Chinese government has nurtured "Brand NZ" in China over the years. NZ was considered "the ideal global standard", our exports there have tripled and our goods have been allowed special privileges at Chinese customs.

So when the Chinese government requested the NZ government to help perform a recall of 5 per cent of infant formula as a way to end the crisis we had caused, the rejection instead was all the more hard to fathom.

Rather than inviting China's state media to NZ as a force for good to film our picturesque farms and safe food processing systems to reassure hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers, CCTV came of their own accord to "expose" our unregulated infant formula industry.

The DCD issue, and moreover its handling, was actually the trigger for the reputation crisis NZ is experiencing with Chinese consumers and the Chinese government. Because, not only did it uncover both countries' vulnerability to a food safety issue involving NZ milk, it belittled the concerns of the leaders of an economic and political powerhouse.

Worryingly, our research (an extract of which was printed in the Business Herald: "NZ dairy can win back its reputation in China" - 8 April) showed how another similar issue could further damage our whole country's reputation; NZ would again unfairly bear all of the responsibility that should rightfully sit with the foreign multi-nationals making huge profits selling Fonterra sourced/contract-manufactured infant formula to China.

Incredibly, only months later, the botulism scare has done just that and both countries are again victims, this time NZ more so as the Chinese government were better prepared via swift adoption of risk management mechanisms after DCD.

In the wake of repeated mistakes, it's time for the NZ government to back all our assurances up with a risk management plan that will protect NZ and China in the event of another Fonterra milk scare. And although an apology wouldn't hurt, China doesn't need our Prime Minister to say sorry, nor do they want an explanation of a dirty pipe and how existing standards will be lifted. Because, while food contamination can be prevented, it can never be completely ruled out. And this is why what the Chinese government really wants from John Key is a practical plan that offers tangible assurance in the event of another "problematic" NZ milk issue.

Our research in April outlined a product recall risk management mechanism for infant formula exports to China as a means to restore consumer confidence, protect both countries and be a visible point of difference to maintain our competitive edge globally.

It's a win-win for both countries which is why I'm sure the Chinese government would welcome further collaboration with NZ officials if it were tabled.

Premier Li Keqiang emphasised in May that infant formula in the Chinese market is "the spearhead for all other products". NZ urgently needs to upgrade its business model with the essential policy infrastructure needed to grow our economy and right now NZ dairy needs to move up the value chain towards less polluting, more profitable exports.

China is our friend - and largest trading partner; if we get this right, it can be the gateway to NZ's entire food industry for many years to come and provide the basis, and prosperity needed to invest in the expensive task of cleaning up our environment. Let's live up to our reputation and aim to make NZ 100% Pure.

Simon Page is managing director of infant formula exporter Biopure Health and vice- secretary-general of the World Civilisation Forum, a think tank on issues arising from global civilisation differences.

- NZ Herald

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