The precautionary element of Fonterra's recall got lost when ministers weighed in

Somebody has done this country harm and I wouldn't assume the culprit is Fonterra. The first question an inquiry needs to answer is: who decided to sound the alarm before they knew for certain it was a botulism-causing bacteria?

"Well, what would you have had us do?" Steven Joyce replied this week when reporters put a similar question to him. He said if they hadn't raised alarm and further tests had confirmed the worst, "you (the media) would be asking me, why have you sat on your hands for two weeks?"

That's true. Even when they put the word out, there were calls for practically a royal commission into why Fonterra had taken two days to inform the Ministry for Primary Industries. That's politics. Ministers know they have a thankless task.

Joyce is one of the best at cutting through carping criticism. I can easily hear him calmly explaining that when you're dealing with a product like infant formula you don't want to go off half-cocked. You don't want to be scaring young parents and doing serious damage to New Zealand's dairy exports and international reputation until you know what you are dealing with.


So how did it happen? I hope he has a better explanation than the one he has given. That sounded like the chronic political instinct colloquially called covering your ass. It is a good reason to keep politicians and public servants well away from this sort of decision.

Fonterra is a sophisticated company, operating on a global scale that far exceeds the operations of any other New Zealand-based business. And since it is in a sector as sensitive as food, especially baby food, it is reasonable to expect it will have put a great deal of thought into how it handles a product recall.

With the most hygienic production standards in the world - and I think we trust Fonterra to have them - something can go wrong. It is simply not credible that the company would not have prepared for recall announcements far better than the one it made four weeks ago.

Somehow the precautionary element of the announcement was completely lost in the frenzy that followed. Amid all the reports of fearful parents and foreign trade embargoes I for one had missed the fact that the bacterium they had detected might not be clostridium botulinum.

I hadn't realised we were waiting for further tests before the news on Wednesday that it had been a false alarm.

It had seemed strange that the contaminated whey had been in the supply chain for well over a year and nobody had been sick, but it would have been chancing fate to say so.

The relief now makes it hard to care that somebody got it wrong. We trust that foreign consumers will take note and appreciate how seriously New Zealand regards food safety. Dairy futures and milk payouts this week suggest not too much damage has been done. New Zealand baby formula is reported to be still in hot demand in Hong Kong for sales in China.

But we can't afford to let this happen too often.

The inquiries under way for the Fonterra board and the Government need to tell us exactly what happened in the afternoon and evening of Friday, August 2, when the Ministry of Primary Industries was told a test had indicated botulinum.

By evening, hospitals were being told to stop using one brand of formula and the Herald, among other media no doubt, got wind of it. The public announcement came just after midnight in New Zealand, first from Fonterra, followed closely by the ministry.

By morning, ministers Joyce (business, innovation and employment) and Tim Groser (trade) were out front, frowning, fearing the worst, calling an urgent meeting with Fonterra to discuss its response. Groser said they were in contact with trading partners and he predicted there would be damage.

So there was. I happened to be in Singapore nearly a week later and the story of "tainted NZ baby formula" was still running prominently in the Straits Times. Singapore is one of our more sensible markets. In places like Russia and Sri Lanka where rogues and fools rule, an unreasonable reaction could almost be guaranteed.

This week the Straits Times had a different story: "NZ milk scare a false alarm, fresh tests show", but it didn't rate a mention on the paper's web page. You had to ask for it. We can't assume the good news has been widely received.

But at least this country will not quickly forget what has happened. Every time a food safety alert is issued in future somebody is bound to mention "botch-ulism", a New Zealand expression for the damage that is done when powerful people seize a microphone and a precaution becomes an excessive global scare.