The Immediate Risk to Babies



I love the smell of baby formula in the morning

So it turns out the threat to New Zealand came from within not without and was small, not great, tiny in fact, invisible to the eye: a bacteria, clostridium botulinum: botulism. For months, New Zealand’s largest company (and the spine of our economy) sat on information that, due to a broken pipe at one of its processing plants in the Waikato, whey used in the manufacture of products including baby formula, had potentially been exposed to a dangerous, sometimes lethal toxin. In publicity you cannot buy, New Zealand made the papers around the world. But not for our 100% Pure or 100% Middle Earth status. Like the ‘Unsinkable’ Titanic, our hubristic claims came back to bite the arse of NZ Inc in the worst possible whey. Baby formula! Tim Groser, left holding the proverbial on Q&A shunned discussion of blame. “We will return there when we’ve sorted out the immediate risk to babies – our own and in other countries.” If ever there was a duty of care to consumers and a guide-line for capitalism, “immediate risk to babies” would be it. And yet there it is. And we are the culprits. Not North Korea or Iran or any of the world’s usual suspects. It is New Zealand, good citizen of the world, who posed an ‘immediate risk to babies’ in several markets, including China, already spooked by a couple of baby-killing scandals in this area. Russia, who didn’t even receive any of the products has banned Fonterra. Russia bans Fonterra. It’s come to this! Unbelievable doesn’t quite capture the scope, scale, genesis and exodus (of overseas customers) of this economic catastrophe. We can be assured that heads will roll. Indeed a guillotine might need to erected in Aotea Square to cope with the demand. Our economy might be destroyed but at least the public will have free entertainment.

The worst economic news ever to hit us, our very own iceberg of contaminated whey, was struck over a very busy weekend. Late on Friday afternoon, just as the USA announced a world-wide (though non-specific) al-Qaeda threat warning, 150 pages of emails were dumped into the public arena. This tried-and-true political convention made for a lot of late-night reading for concerned parties. But read they did and on Q & A, Russel Norman and Grant Robertson convincingly and compellingly joined the dots of doubt over the Government’s actions and political mismanagement with regard to Andrea Vance, Peter Dunne, the freedom of the press, free speech and other issues of considerable constitutional importance. For the Government, Steven Joyce had no such luck. He attacked the question, the questioner, the Opposition and the media for their hypocrisy. Having long called for the Government to get to the bottom of the matter, the Opposition now complains when we have got there he shouted over Rachel Smalley. The truth is, the Government has got to the bottom of the matter. The rock bottom. The barrel scrapings. Complicit or incompetent? To quote Joyce “You can’t have it both ways”.

In any event, it seems that John Key’s long honeymoon with the press is over. It’s been a long one, longer than most, but all too-good-to-be-true things must come to an end and one suspects this divorce is going to get ugly and a lot of dirty laundry is going to be aired. Perhaps the greatest scandal is that this country faced serious issues before Fonterra exponentially (and perhaps irrevocably) made them worse. Child poverty, unemployment, the still-devasted state of our second-largest city have all taken a back seat whilst the PM devotes his time to extricating himself from a series of scandals and crises of his own creation. In the House, the topic of debate is no longer about policy and good governance but rather who did what and when and can they (dis)prove it.

No news is good news. This week, we made world news:  the PM made the news, the GCSB Bill made the news, Andrea Vance and Peter Dunne made the news, Wayne Eagleson made the news, a senior public servant quitting made the news, police accessing ‘Teacupgate’ emails made the news, the domestic al-Qaeda threat as announced by the PM to Simon Barnett on More FM’s breakfast show made the news and, most damning for us all, “the immediate risk to babies” posed by New Zealand’s biggest company made the news. The future prosperity of you and your loved ones didn’t get a look in.


  1. The Labour response, if reported accurately, is a pisser. ‘We stand by the government and wouldn’t review the Fonterror business model.’

  2. Wow, what a competent lot of economic managers we’re saddled with. Firstly they make the country dependent on one company, allow that company to make our land about 5% clean and green, then make its products unsaleable. Bugger the GCSB/SIS – Al Qaeda couldn’t do us more harm if they tried.

  3. Actually, a lot of this is media hysteria. The media just loves it, and it was not without co-incidence that numerous mums with babies suddenly were shown in the headline news, and on Campbell Live. You cannot get better viewer ratings than that, use the mass hysteria, fear mongering tactics on people out there, especially mothers with little ones. Emotions run amok, and news are made and sold. The advertisers just love it, except of course Fonterra and that other baby formula manufacturer and exporter.

    Was there such hysteria about solo mums dreading benefit cuts if they would fail to enrol their little child into ECE? Was there such hysteria when the welfare reforms, now forcing sick and disabled to be prepared to look for jobs? No, the media does not care a stuff about fringe dwellers, also not beggars soon to be chased off the streets of Auckland.

    But such news, a most dangerous bacteria, and poison it can produce, while not one fatality or even sick case has been reported, that is just wonderful. It scares the MIDDLE CLASS, and that is the target market, like with so much else. Even the pollies focus on that vague “class” for votes.

    What it also shows is how this over dependence of the NZ economy on dairy exports leaves the country highly vulnerable. Media hysteria overseas is reaching the red alert level, and New Zealand is suddenly in the headlines for the wrong reason. The 100 per cent pure label is stained, the clean-green image is stuffed, the all so nice stories about that wonderful little paradise at the other end of the globe is nothing but fairytale, not to be relied on.

    While the damage controllers will fix a lot of this again, it should be a damned wake-up call for NZers and their politicians. This economy needs more diversification, needs to become less dependent on some core industries. What it also shows is how sensitive and self confident Mainland China is now. Xinhua is a media establishment there that serves as the mouth piece of their government. They lashed out at NZ yesterday, criticising it as not being able to ensure quality, and not being the clean green wonder-place making wonderful products, all so perfect, clean and reliable as NZ governments try to sell it.

    A marketing nightmare can follow. Sales may fall through, and export earnings will fall, that is a danger. It is threatening all NZ dairy products. Xinhua has put Fonterra, the NZ government and NZers into place. Deliver what we need and want, or get stuffed! Yes, get stuffed, if you cannot deliver, that is the message, from that great golden goose, as the NZ free traders thought that market would represent.

    China does not buy high quality, value added stuff from NZ, they make those there now, in increasing numbers. NZ is condemned to deliver milk powder, baby formula, other milk extracts, logs, raw fish, fruits perhaps, and serve increasing numbers of Chinese tourists. Well the operators actually bring a lot of their own staff in, with them, so apart from the Maori welcome and a few others, not that many jobs are created.

    Thank you Roger Douglas, Richardson, Shipley, Bolger, and now Key and consorts, you got us all on the right track, the right track to economic disaster and the abyss, following the ideology of “competitive advantage” preaching in the 1990s.

  4. And another take on this is: The luck of one John Key never seems to run out. Years ago it was earthquakes and other events, that gave him a great distraction opportunity, to jump into gumboots and all, to present himself as the “hands on” rescuer of the nation.

    Now, while the GCSB bill is in its third reading, hanging on that one Dunne vote anyway, he can lean back in comfort, as the media is all over this fiasco with the bacteria in whey and the danger of it being a danger to consumers here and overseas.

    But he got into gear again, held a special speech to announce actions being taken at the opening of Parliamentary session on Tuesday, and he can now ride this out dominantly, relying on media only giving the GCSB and all other news lower ranked focus and worth.

    Off to the rescue again, I expect him to visit dairy plants in the coming weeks, in white coat, gumboots and all, to show the nation, Kim Yong Key is looking after the well-being of all within the whole nation.

    Hooray, hooray, all is well, trust your dear leader and his “competent” team, keeping the ship of New Zealand well afloat through all this tough weather!?

  5. I pretty much agree Marc. I do see a silver lining though. More people are waking up and even The PMs media mates resent being dicked, while being smiled and waved at. Roll on!

  6. If New Zealand wasn’t so reliant on the Fonterra brand, then this would be no more of an issue than incorrect labeling on a buzzy bee toy.

    Our milk products are the best in the world and China etc can boo hoo it all they want, but they are still the ones who want to have our product on their shelves, not only that, they want to invest in the production and core resources used in the production of it.

    From this I can see our exporters will probably not make as much coin overseas as in the past, however, I believe we should stand our ground. This will only harm our economy in the long term, and I still believe there is not enough social responsibility shown by Fonterra with regards to giving back to New Zealand.

    Why don’t we ban coke due to its corrosive nature and proven health effects?? Or McDonald s due to our obesity epidemic? I see this as more of a problem to our country than a small amount of contaminated milk powder sent overseas, which has been recalled effectively.

    Why Fonterra sat on this, is up to the board at Fonterra to decide, obviously someones head should roll, but at the cost of another bad choice in government? I don’t think so!!!

    Maybe John Key could send some spies in to find out!@!!@

  7. Marc, considering that Fonterra is one of our biggest companies; earns billions in overseas revenue; and a big employer; I don’t think the botulism contamination is hysteria at all.

    More to the point, China (and other nations) are calling us out on our “100% Pure” bullshit (excuse then phrasing). With our polluted rivers; increased mining, drilling, and fracking; National’s abandoning of the Kyoto Protocols, and ETS for the farming sector, any mention of “clean & green” is now nothing more than hollow advertising hype.

    Soon this will impact on our tourism sector – our 2nd or 3rd biggest revenue earner, and an even bigger employer of workers.

    In effect, National has capitalised on our reputation without working to maintain it.

    A furtherpoint; watching the MSM, I’m struck by the fact that they are still keeping the GCSB/Vance/Dunne issue very much alive in public view. So the Fonterra Fiasco is not swamping other, equally important problems.

    • Frank, it is hysteria, as there are a variation of that bacteria, and there have been no clear findings on which one the tests showed was present. Also the story about that broken pipe at the plant in Waikato has been seriously questioned. The bacteria either comes from the ground, or it was in some batch or so, where it was already taking hold and causing havoc. Nothing like that has been proved. A damaged pipe at a dairy factory is questioned for being the cause for the pollution in Whey, and thus the whole fiasco.

      As for those thinking NZ is such a great dairy producer, yes it is amongst the best, but there are dairy production rates higher than here, also at same and sometimes better quality in a number of countries in Europe, in the US and even the odd Asian country.

      This is what many here do not know or realise. NZ dairy production is in total about 2 per cent of global production, get it? If you do not get it, study the figures available.

      It is time to take steps to develop seriously product enhancement, diversification in various areas, and to grow the economy not just by volume, but by quality also.

      I appreciate NZ dairy have come a long way, and there are cheeses and other products on local shelves not seen 10 or more years ago, but complacency is idiotic, and after this, more needs doings, also producing heaps more of good quality, that is besides of dairy.

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