Our companies must meet our standards

The contamination of infant milk powder  in China is being blamed on sabotage of the raw milk before it reached the company.

The milk powder is produced by Sanlu a company in which Fonterra has a 43% stake.

The New Zealand dairy giant said someone put the banned chemical melamine into raw milk supplied to Sanlu. The possibility of contamination during the production, storage and sales process has been excluded. Melamine can boost the apparent protein content in some standard tests on food.

I don’t know if it is realistic to expect companies to screen milk for this sort of contamination before they use it but I do wonder if Fonterra could have done more once the contamination was discovered.

Fonterra said it would have preferred a public recall of milk powder that killed two babies in China earlier but its joint venture partner Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group Co Ltd had to abide by Chinese rules.

Those rules wouldn’t apply in New Zealand and if media here had been alerted the news would have soon spread to China.

No-one would have anticipated sabotage but Philippa Stephenson says the debacle wasn’t unexpected.

Fonterra’s sickening infant milk powder, brand blowing disaster in its part-owned Chinese company Sanlu was predictable.

China’s explosive dairy growth had brought major problems with milk quality and exposed a crippling lack of managerial expertise, US Trade representative Todd Meyer told a Christchurch conference only late last year.

Farm dairy hygiene is appalling, bacteria levels in milk are high and antibiotic use so great that yoghurt can’t be made from the milk, the conference heard.

In December, Dig ‘n’ Stir asked whether Fonterra was smart enough to ignore the lure of China, a country littered with the corpses of Western companies that thought they could make a killing in the world’s most populace nation.

The phrase, meant figuratively not literally, has come chillingly true.

There are opportunities for New Zealand companies in China and other countries but these come with real risks if foreign ventures can’t meet New Zealand standards.

PGG Wrightson has a made a big investment in dairying in Uruguay; both Silver Fern Farms and Alliance Group are talking about sourcing lamb from South America. They must be very, very careful that anything associated with their brands and New Zealand’s reputation measure up to everything that would be required if they were produced here.

We are world leaders in food standards, animal welfare and environmental protection but taking our expertise and money to other countries doesn’t guarantee they’ll do things the way we do nor do them to our requirements.

It’s not easy working in other countries with foreign languages and different cultures and what works here may not work there. But that is not an excuse to accept lower standards, especially when it comes to safety.

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