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Christopher Adams

The Business Herald’s markets and banking reporter.

Spierings blames 'she'll be right attitude' for Fonterra botulism scare

Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings compared the company's botulism debacle to Emirates Team New Zealand's near-capsize during the America's Cup. Photo / Greg Bowker
Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings compared the company's botulism debacle to Emirates Team New Zealand's near-capsize during the America's Cup. Photo / Greg Bowker

Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings says a "she'll be right attitude" was one of the causes of the company's botulism fiasco.

Business leaders have gathered in Auckland today for the annual China Business Summit.

The event's main focus this year is the ongoing impact of Fonterra's whey protein contamination scare, which led to a global recall of consumer products, including infant formula, but turned out to be a false alarm.

Addressing the summit, Spierings said Fonterra was world class in manufacturing and food safety but the company still needed to "lift its game".

"That was one the key learnings [of the botulism scare] - a 'she'll be right' attitude is not acceptable," he said.

Spierings said Fonterra - which is facing a damages claim from French dairy firm Danone in relation to the scare - needed to become "the Nasa of food safety and quality".

He compared the company's botulism debacle to Emirates Team New Zealand's near capsize during the America's Cup.

"We came into a similar situation and we installed the four Rs - recall, review ... recovery and last but not least rebuild," Spierings said.

Minister of Trade Tim Groser said "speed bumps" in China and New Zealand's trade relationship were inevitable.

"We have to understand that as two countries increase their trade it is almost inevitable that scope for trade frictions and trade disputes [and] differences in interpretation will occur," Groser said.

Marco Marinkovich, founder of infant formula exporter KiwiMilk Nutrition, said companies such as his were "the collateral damage" of Fonterra's "botch up".

"Individuals within the New Zealand Infant Formula Exporters Association ... we've lost millions," he said.

Marinkovich said not enough effort had been put into telling Chinese consumers, and that country's media, that the botulism scare was a false alarm.

"In my view, there was no leadership, no management and no cooperation or recovery plan the focussed on the false alarm," he said.

Air New Zealand chief executive Christopher Luxon said the botulism scare had resulted in "massive changes" to its cargo business into China, particularly with dairy products.

The airline had also carried out research with Tourism New Zealand, which suggested that around 41 per cent of potential Chinese visitors felt more negative about this country following the Fonterra incident.

"It just illustrates that point that an issue in the dairy industry can can have contagion and potentially spread into the tourism industry," Luxon said.

Andrew Grant, head of global public practice at McKinsey & Company, said New Zealand tended to get "caught on the back foot" when news in English got translated into Mandarin in China.

"If you look at the English words and then the Mandarin creations - the Mandarin creations have been way more horrific than the English terms," Grant said.

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