China’s blanket ban on NZ milk powder imports 'appropriate'
Sunday 4 August, 2013
Corin Dann interviews Tim Groser
Trade minister says China’s blanket ban on NZ milk powder imports “entirely appropriate”.
Trade minister Tim Groser told TV One’s Q+A programme that the situation with Fonterra was “very serious”.
China has suspended imports of NZ milk powders after Fonterra revealed three batches of whey product, which is used to make infant formulas and sports drinks, have been found to contain the toxic bacteria Clostridium botulinum, which can cause botulism.
“How serious it is depends obviously on a) the extent of the problem and b) how long it lasts. The authorities in China, in my opinion absolutely appropriately, have stopped all imports of New Zealand milk powders from Australia and New Zealand,” Mr Groser told political editor Corin Dann.
“It’s entirely appropriate they should have done that. So 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. So we’re working extremely closely with the Chinese and other authorities. The trade issues are not just about China,” he added.
Mr Groser says he will head to China “at the drop of a hat” if he receives advice that political contact is useful. At the moment, he says he’s focused on dealing with the immediate problem of the wellbeing of users of the products.
“There are some very important questions in our minds about the process that led up to that, including that. But, look, that’s tomorrow’s problem. Today our sole concern is on the health of infants and other users of these products, both our own and in the countries’ that we’re exporting to. So it’s not that we don’t think there's some very important questions, but we’re focusing on the essential problem of today.
“We don’t want Fonterra worrying about their long-term reputation or risks right now. We want everybody focused on the health of the little babies.”
Consumers worried about whether the products they bought are safe can call PlunketLine on 0800 933 922 or Healthline on 0800 611 116.
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Q + A – 4 August, 2013
Interviewed by Corin Dann
CORIN Minister, thank you very much for joining us. What’s the latest information you can give consumers as of this morning?
TIM Well, I think the best thing consumers in New Zealand can do is get objective health advice, and if you don’t mind, Corin, I’m just going to give them the telephone numbers of a couple of health lines that we’ve set up. Perhaps we can repeat that at the end of the interview if they want to go off and get some pen and paper.
TIM So, there are two. There’s PlunketLine – 0800 933 922. And there's Healthline – 0800 611 116. And there's also a website on the MPI – that’s Ministry of Primary Industry, MPI. Put that in your Google and you’ll get it.
CORIN Do you think that – it’s such a long time ago, May – that a number of people will have already consumed these products?
TIM Well, we are acting on advice that we received at midday or slightly thereafter on Friday. There are some very important questions in our minds about the process that led up to that, including that. But, look, that’s tomorrow’s problem. Today our sole concern is on the health of infants and other users of these products, both our own and in the countries’ that we’re exporting to. So it’s not that we don’t think there's some very important questions, but we’re focusing on the essential problem of today.
CORIN So that also means recalls. Where are we at with recalls?
TIM Well, the director general, under statutory powers, has the authority to issue recalls if he and his advisers deem that necessary. Right at this point, he has not advised us of that, but that is a power that he has at his disposal. Obviously our first preference is to work through other channels, and that’s what's happening right now. So the situation as I understand it – I mean, the Minister of Food Safety is in Wellington coordinating this and also acting as the link with other ministers including myself, and we’re in constant contact on this issue – is that there are three batches of contaminated whey protein concentrate, which is used as an ingredient in a variety of dairy products, including infant formula of certain types. That was exported to Australia and then from Australia exported to other countries, including New Zealand. So we have, or our experts have, isolated the product. The director general’s advice, which may change, is that they have identified where that product is. It is not on the market – that’s their advice to us. But of course they are verifying independently everything.
CORIN We don’t know what products they are, though, do we? We should know.
TIM We’ve been told the products are Nutracare beyond six months. So after you wean the baby, it’s called a follow-on.
CORIN But there are other products, aren’t there?
TIM There was a health bodybuilding product, and in certain other markets, not in New Zealand, my understanding is there's some yoghurt as well. But all of this— There's a very fluid situation. This may change and it’s up to our advisers now to keep us constantly abreast as their own information base improves.
CORIN This is the nightmare scenario for New Zealand, isn’t it?
TIM Well, it’s a very serious situation. How serious it is depends obviously on a) the extent of the problem and b) how long it lasts. The authorities in China, in my opinion absolutely appropriately, have stopped all imports of New Zealand milk powders from Australia and New Zealand.
CORIN Is that all milk powder across the board?
TIM That’s our understanding. And it’s entirely appropriate they should have done that. So 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. So we’re working extremely closely with the Chinese and other authorities. The trade issues are not just about China.
CORIN Well, I can understand now why I bumped into a senior leader in the farming industry last night on the way to Auckland absolutely furious about this wanting heads to roll, and I can see why now.
TIM Yes, well, that goes back to my comment about that’s a very important question as to why this happened, where the failure happened and who’s going to take responsibility. But, look, there’s an old saying – when you’re finding an alligator, bystanders saying “you should have drained the swamp” is good advice, but right now we’re fighting the alligator. Tomorrow we’ll look at the underlying cause.
CORIN The head of Fonterra has gone to China. Will the government also? Because that relationship with China must be under serious strain now, given the DCD issue and of course the SanLu issue. This is the third. They must be getting pretty concerned about our reputation.
TIM Well, the key thing is the technical-level exchanges are the absolute centre of this particular issue. I will go to China at the drop of a hat if I forge the view on the basis of advice I’m getting from our people that political contact is useful. Right now I’m not getting that advice. But absolutely. I mean, I go to China all the time, and if I sense there's any value to be added, I’ll be on a plane tomorrow.
CORIN Why weren’t you involved? Why wasn’t the government informed earlier? May and it took all the way to July this year to find out.
TIM Well, we’ve got statements from Fonterra on the record that they only received advice that this very dangerous – or a strain, yet to be determined how toxic – was on 31st of July. But that question, Corin, is very much in our minds. We will return there when we’ve sorted out the immediate risk to babies, our own and in other countries.
CORIN Sure, but we have to get to the bottom of this quickly, though, because we seem so vulnerable. A dirty pipe in one factory can do this. It’s extraordinary.
TIM Yes, it is.
CORIN So what are we to do in the future to prevent this?
TIM That’s tomorrow’s question. Right now we’re told that the plant— This was an end-of-production line, very rarely used. All that equipment’s been taken away. Subsequent tests from other plants indicate no issue. But, yes, it’s a very important question, but we’re not— Look, we have to focus all of our technical political resources. We don’t want Fonterra worrying about their long-term reputation or risks right now. We want everybody focused on the health of the little babies.
CORIN But can you give a guarantee— I mean, you must be furious with Fonterra. This is the second time this has happened that they haven’t told you. Can you give an assurance that you're going to come down hard on Fonterra over this?
TIM I’m going to look at the facts first.
CORIN Tim Groser, Trade Minister, thank you very much for your time on Q+A.