Comment: The botulism scare that wasn’t

Allan BarberSo Fonterra’s botulism contamination problem wasn’t a problem after all according to the tests conducted by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), notes meat industry commentator Allan Barber.

It is most unfortunate that Fonterra got it so wrong that it felt the need to wear a hair shirt and submit itself, not to mention its own management, the government and the country as a whole, to the worst public relations disaster imaginable.

The original tests were carried out by AgResearch which still stands by its test results but, according to MPI’s tests by global experts, the whey protein contained a non-toxic bacteria Clostridium sporogenes, not the toxic Clostridium botulinum  as originally feared. The difference between them is just a single gene.

In any event, MPI took the c.botulinum scare seriously, the government took it seriously, Gary Romano fell on his sword and two managers have been dismissed. China was completely spooked by the prospect of infant deaths, while Russia and Sri Lanka have discovered an opportunity to place bans, temporary or otherwise, on New Zealand dairy production.

Infant formula manufacturers will have suffered untold damage to their businesses, from image, financial and future sales perspectives.

The damage to our image abroad has been incalculable. When newspapers all over the world take delight in writing headlines such as ‘100% Manure’ and question our right to promote our tourism industry on the back of our clean, green environment, one wonders whether we can ever recover from this single mistake.

The answer is that we will in time, but perhaps nobody will ever really believe the 100% Pure claim again, even if it was never meant to be taken literally.

Having said that, the recent spate of food safety problems, among them the apparent discovery of traces of chemicals which weren’t there, is not all that surprising when one thinks about it.

New Zealand’s exports are massively weighted towards agriculturally based food products, all of which have the potential to pose more or less serious food safety issues. This is why MPI’s inspection regime is so comprehensive, although the dairy production problems may suggest to an outside observer that the systems in place are not as fail-safe as they should be.

Only a couple of days ago Greens primary industry spokesperson, Stefan Browning, has called for MPI to stop the practice of allowing meat companies to carry out some of their own inspection procedures and revert to all meat inspection having to be performed by AsureQuality’s meat inspectors. Browning said the meat industry is potentially a comparable risk to the dairy industry.

Therefore, it’s a great relief that the systems didn’t actually fail in the case of Fonterra’s dirty pipes. Someone who ought to know told me more than a week ago that there would be no traces of Clostridium botulinum found in the whey protein, so it all appears to have been a big fuss about nothing very much.

However, there is a question as to whether all food safety has suddenly been compromised by a fall in standards caused by devolving responsibility to the companies which produce or process the food products. There is no evidence of a sudden drop in standards in spite of recent events, although conspiracy theorists will assume that independent Government employed inspection has been compromised by companies being allowed to inspect their own products.

In this case it was a test by AgResearch, a Crown Research Institute, that provoked the contamination scare, although presumably the product had already been cleared by Fonterra’s in house testing laboratory.

In the dairy industry, there are 49 Approved Recognised Agencies including both independent testing agencies and company owned laboratories. This latest chain of events does not necessarily invalidate this testing structure.

There would appear to be potentially a long queue of people and organisations looking for compensation, including dismissed managers, infant formula manufacturers whose businesses have been undermined, Tourism New Zealand whose brand has been dragged through spilt milk powder and all those businesses which depend on our international reputation.

It is ironic that Fonterra has just announced its highest ever payout to farmers which will of course be great for the economy, but that might not be enough to compensate for the damage caused by the company’s PR disaster.

Allan Barber is a meat industry commentator. He has his own blog Barber’s Meaty Issues and can be contacted by emailing him at allan@barberstrategic.co.nz.

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