A Chinese-owned dairy company's attempt to partly justify its wage subsidy claim by questioning Fonterra's Covid-19 hygiene controls seems to have backfired spectacularly.
Mataura Valley Milk, 78.5 per cent owned by China Animal Husbandry of Beijing, and as "an essential service" operating throughout the pandemic response, was paid $615,775 from the taxpayer-funded wage subsidy fund for 88 employees.
The Herald highlighted the payment to Mataura, along with another two to operating dairy industry processors, on April 22, noting industry leaders Fonterra and Open Country Dairy had not claimed. The payments were strongly criticised by participants in the $13 billion export dairy industry.
But Mataura's real public relations issue began yesterday.
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Mataura, which makes infant formula, processes milk bought from Fonterra at a regulated price under DIRA, the Dairy Industry Restructuring Act 2001 -as well as from its own farmer-suppliers.
The Muster, an NZME rural show, asked the Twittersphere for opinions on Mataura receiving a wage subsidy, posting a note purportedly from Mataura, which said the company had opted not to process Fonterra milk in the virus response because Fonterra "had lower controls than we have put in place".
The note said as a "nutritional" producer, Mataura "was operating at a far higher hygiene level than a dairy commodity site". It noted Fonterra had experienced a Covid-19 infection at a Southland site "and we haven't".
It said the consequences of Mataura's decision not to process Fonterra milk "comes at a financial cost that met the MSD (Ministry of Social Development) criteria for the wage subsidy".
Fonterra chief executive Miles Hurrell responded on Twitter, noting Mataura received "subsidised" milk from Fonterra farmers. He said he was disappointed at the comment about Fonterra's Covid-19 controls "as the team has done us proud".
"Our milk deliveries are safe. Not sure a subsidy is justified if they chose not to process all milk available."
Fonterra is New Zealand's biggest company by revenue, a cornerstone of its export economy and the world's fourth largest dairy company.
The Herald sought formal responses on the Twitter exchange from Mataura and Fonterra.
Mataura chief executive Bernard May in a written statement said: "We have never made any negative statements regarding Fonterra. We also never communicate on any open social media platforms regarding our business; any comments on social media are not from Mataura Valley Milk."
May said he, the board of directors, and the Mataura company did not have Twitter accounts. He did not respond to further Herald requests for comment on whether the Twitter statement about Fonterra was internally-generated and/or an advisory to farmers.
Herald inquiries confirmed the Twitter note was leaked to The Muster by a farmer.
May, in a written response to Herald questions, said Mataura and Fonterra had done "an exceptional job" managing through a global pandemic.
"We have a strong relationship with Fonterra and continue to work with them on supply of specialised ingredients used to manufacture infant formulas on our site."
Fonterra's Hurrell, in a follow-up statement, said the Mataura company comment shared on Twitter was "disappointing".
"We consider it a privilege to be an essential business during the lockdown period and our teams have risen to the challenge of operating under very tight controls and safety procedures.
"We stand by the procedures we put in place to provide safe milk deliveries to other processors and we're happy to work with others to provide further reassurance around any aspect of our safe delivery procedures."