One of the first lessons I learned at journalism school was the importance of making sure a news story answered all the Ws – who, what, where, why and how.
It’s a rule which applies to public relations too and one which Fonterra failed to follow in its releases over the contaminated whey.
There is a sad irony in this saga – the reason the contamination has been found is that Fonterra has such a strict food safety regime. It’s probably the strictest in the world.
That means that sometimes it will find something other companies would not.
But knowing that, the company should be prepared to alert the public with absolutely all the information it needs.
One obvious question the company should have answered in its first release was: why there was such a long time between the contamination occurring, its detection and the public announcement?
As suppliers we are subject to strict rules about shed hygiene and every tanker of milk which leaves every farm is tested.
If the milk contains penicillin, colostrum or anything else it shouldn’t, it’s graded and there are financial penalties for those grades.
Fonterra has similarly strict regimes for each step of its processing and distribution.
The media release should have explained all that including how and when the contamination was found and what consumers who had any concerns should do.
Knowledge is power, consumers here didn’t have enough knowledge and were consequently powerless until the Ministry of Primary Industries issued a warning about a specific brand of infant formula several hours after Fonterra’s first release.
The Chinese have stopped the importation of all New Zealand milk powders from Australia and here, a move Trade Minister Tim Groser describes as absolutely appropriate:
“It’s better to do blanket protection for your people and then wind it back when we, our authorities, are in a position to give them the confidence and advice that they need before doing that,” he said. . .
If the Chinese have a word for schadenfreude, they could be excused for feeling it.
Our reputation for food safety has always been high and China’s has not.
That reputation is under threat and the way Fonterra has handled the issue hasn’t helped.
This isn’t just about whey and the products it’s been used in. It isn’t just about Fonterra.
This issue is about trust in our food and food safety and our biggest company has put that at risk.