Melamine scandal gets murkier for Fonterra

Tian Wenhua the former chairwoman of Sanlu who was convicted for her part in the melamine milk poisoning scandal said she acted on advice given by a Fonterra board member.

But Fonterra’s chief executive Andrew Ferrier says the company was always clear there was no safe level of melamine in milk.

China’s state news agency, Xinhua,  . . .  said rather than stopping production of tainted products after the contamination was confirmed on August 1 last year, Sanlu decided to limit melamine levels to within 10mg for every kilogram of milk.

“Tian said during her trial that she made the decision not to halt production of the tainted products because a board member, designated by New Zealand dairy product giant Fonterra that partly owned Sanlu Group, presented her a document saying a maximum of 20mg of melamine was allowed in every kg of milk in the European Union,” Xinhua said. “She said she had trusted the document at that time.”

Mr Ferrier told the Herald a Fonterra representative had given Tian the document soon after the board was advised of the contamination on August 2.

“The context was when this whole thing broke there was an enormous amount of work going on to find out what melamine was and there was research all over the world about its contaminants, its danger,” Mr Ferrier said. “There was information pulled up from Europe, from the US, everywhere.”

. . . Mr Ferrier said: “I do want to be crystal, crystal clear – although there was lots of information that was pulled up we were vividly clear to Sanlu that the only acceptable level [of melamine] was zero.”

At no point did Fonterra tell Sanlu it was acceptable to keep producing to the melamine level in the report, he said. “Absolutely not, absolutely not.”

I believe Ferrier but it’s not me he needs to convince, it’s consumers who rely on the company’s commitment to the highest possible safety standards for its products.

Just a few months ago Fonterra was being held up as the model to which other processors of primary products should aspire. The fall in world commodity prices is  a large part of the reason this has changed and the company can’t be held responsible for that. But another reason is that it has not handled the melamine scandal well.

As Keeping Stock says:

. . . Fonterra still has a lot of questions to answer, and there’s no escaping the perception, whether merited or not, that Fonerra has been less than transparent throughout.

Fonterra has appeared to be on the backfoot throughout  the whole sorry saga and Roarprawn  is right when she says the company needs a rocket.

Paul Henry discussed the issue with Fran O’Sullivan on Breakfast yesterday and she said that the company made a fundamental mistake at the start by thinking the scandal could be isolated as a Chinese problem. She also said that journalists have been unimpressed by the slow response from the company.

A large company ought to understand the importance of not just being on top of such a potentially damaging issue but showing the world it is on top of it. Regardless of how well the Fonterra may be handling things behind the scenes its poor public relations are giving the impression it’s not handling things well at all and allowing questions over its involvement in the melamine scandal to fester.

3 Responses to Melamine scandal gets murkier for Fonterra

  1. Inventory2 says:

    Excellent and informative piece HP. I have now linked back to this post from the one you linked to as you are far better informed on these issues than this humble townie 😉

  2. HP

    I will be posting on this much later today, but I am not surprised at what has happened.
    Back in September I said Fonterra were not handling this well. Throughout they seem to have gone for the Perrier response and not the Tylenol response.

    http://adamsmith.wordpress.com/2008/09/15/6826/
    Now they and we in NZ will pay the price, unless they have incontrovertible evidence of their actions.

    Fonterra management need to go proactive not reactive

    If I was a dairy farmer shareholder in Fonterra I would be seeking some very direct answers from the board and questioning the governance process

  3. macdoctor01 says:

    Good post, HP. It will be interesting to see if Fonterra will revert back to handwringing mode or go feral on Tian Wenhua. Sadly, I’m picking handwringing.

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