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Editorial: Harm done to NZ requires full answers

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Why were Fonterra's customers given no warning in March? Photo / Christine Cornege
Why were Fonterra's customers given no warning in March? Photo / Christine Cornege

As days pass, emerging details raise more questions about the infant formula scare. Fonterra says the contaminated whey protein concentrate was produced over two days, May 17 and 18 last year, just before the Hautapu dairy factory was shut down for seven weeks of cleaning and maintenance. It says it does not routinely test for the bacteria causing botulism at that stage. Why not?

"We only test when we make semi-finished or finished products," chief executive Theo Spierings explained in Beijing on Monday. But 15 months ago, when a "dirty pipe" caused all this problem, about 20 tonnes of the protein was shipped to six companies that use it in their products.

The remaining 18 tonnes were stored at Fonterra until March this year when a plant in Victoria began processing it into base powder for baby formula. Only then was it tested for clostridium botulinum. The test detected the bacteria, but Fonterra said nothing until further tests could be done to find out whether it was a potentially lethal strain.

That took a further four months before the company learned the worst on Wednesday last week. On Friday it informed the Government, and the first public announcement was made in the early hours of Saturday.

Why were Fonterra's customers given no warning in March? The company says there are 100 or more strains of clostridium and not all are fatal, but that seems a very high threshhold for a warning, particularly since it would have been a notice to manufacturers, not consumers. It could have given the manufacturers an opportunity to withhold products containing the suspect protein or recall sold items if need be.

When Fonterra finally made a public announcement, at the Government's insistence perhaps, it raised more questions than it answered. Spokesmen refused to identify their customers whose brands were affected, thereby exposing all brands (except Fonterra's own, they assured us) to suspicion. Product safety warnings need to be precise and specific if they are not to do more harm than good.

In this instance, the warning cast a shadow not only over untainted infant formula brands but over New Zealand dairy products in general. One country, Russia, immediately over-reacted, banning our dairy products, and has stopped further imports of our milk powder.

The Prime Minister promises an inquiry as soon as possible, but the Government's own performance should be questioned, too. Has its intervention made things worse? When governments get involved and start alerting other governments, a consumer notice can quickly become something much larger. It is hard to blame any state for alerting its citizens in terms that New Zealand would not use.

Questions also need to be asked about the Ministry of Primary Industries, formerly Agriculture and Fisheries. The newly constituted ministry, also absorbing the Food Safety Authority, might be more than a name change - though a new name proved costly enough when China held up meat imports for weeks because it did not recognise the certifying authority. Has the ministry lost some clarity in its role?

Ultimately, Fonterra's own constitution is called into question. A farmers' co-operative that long enjoyed a statutory monopoly of milk for export, it is now issuing a form of non-voting shares to other investors. The recent prospectus gave no hint that a whey protein consignment was under a cloud.

Fonterra is often described as New Zealand's only true multinational, our only company that dominates an international market. It needs to face all these questions and more to repair the damage done to New Zealand's name.

- NZ Herald

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