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Honesty is the only policy with food safety

Honesty is the only policy with food safety

Willy Leferink is Federated Farmers Dairy chairperson

Last Friday I sat down with my wife and planned our weekend.  As we are about to be hit by that farming tsunami called calving, this picture of farming domesticity meant this past weekend was likely going to be my last of relative freedom until Boxing Day. 

Then Federated Farmers communications team called me with the kind of bad news you don’t want early on a Saturday.  A Fonterra media release indicated that in a batch of whey was the potential presence of a strain of Clostridium botulinum

We need to remember that no one is sick and this recall stems from Fonterra's product testing.  If you want, Fonterra blew the whistle on Fonterra.  Another thing we need to remember is that the volume involved is a fraction of the 2.5 million tonnes Fonterra produces each year.  When I mean fraction, the 38 tonnes involved represents 0.0015 percent.  But just as a miss is as good as a mile, the tolerance for C botulinum is rightly zero. 

Yet this also means 2,499,962 tonnes of Fonterra produced product is unaffected.  Getting that message out is vital in order to get our dairy products moving again.

As farmers like me own Fonterra, few people can comprehend how proud we are of what our cows, farms and company produce.  You may see milk as a weekly staple but it takes an amazing amount of work to produce a quality product which has so many applications.  The product in question, a whey protein concentrate known as WPC80, is used in products like infant formula, growing up milk powder, as a calf milk replacer and even in sports drinks.

Federated Farmers has talented people and our Food Safety spokesperson, Dr William Rolleston, is a sheep farming medical doctor and biotechnologist.  Speaking to William, it seems Fonterra’s discovery of C botulinum is the laboratory equivalent of a needle in a haystack. I appreciate that is cold comfort right now.

Farms are the first link in the production chain because what we produce is collected and processed under strict sanitary standards.  This is not lip service but an ingrained process starting well inside the farmgate. If there is any break in this pasture to plate chain then product does not go, or rather, that is how things are meant to work. 

We are here because of that single unsanitary pipe at Fonterra’s Hautapu factory. There will be a reckoning but now is not the time; the ‘who, what, why, when, where and how’ questions come later.  Right now we owe it to our consumers here and abroad to give them facts and not speculation.  We owe it to them to communicate truthfully and in a format they will understand.

Contrary to popular opinion most of those bags of powder you may see in the news are produced to specification.  Fonterra is directly plugged into major global supply chains and this is why being open and transparent counts.  While the presence of C botulinum is serious, what we do next, matters.  No matter how tough it may seem, being unambiguous, frank and accessible need to be guiding principles in how we communicate. 

This started Friday at midnight when Fonterra blew the whistle on itself.  Now the most urgent thing is to remove uncertainty in the wider market place. 

That means identifying the products and companies involved in the recall.  Of the eight customers, we welcome that Nutricia Karicare, Coca-Cola, Danone, Wahaha Healthfood as well as the local animal feed business, NZ AgBiz, have all stood up.  Good on them.  We must ensure that our consumers, wherever they are, have easy access to all the facts and in a format and language they understand.  If you are a consumer and have concerns then please call the consumer number likely listed on the tin, bottle or container you are holding.

This is why communication channels must be kept open for the Ministry for Primary Industries as the regulator, Fonterra as the processor and the companies who used WPC80.  Our only priority must be food safety and the integrity of what we export.  Integrity is communicating facts openly and transparently and this is thankfully happening.


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