WORD IS SPREADING through the Waikato that Fonterra’s Hautapu manufacturing facility knew “from the start” (May 2012) that it had dispatched a potentially contaminated batch of whey. That the “single pipe” at the centre of the widening botulism scandal constituted a potential food safety hazard was, according to local accounts, “an open secret”.
The story gets worse. The Hautapu management, informed that several tonnes of potentially harmful whey was en route to the market, allegedly refused to alert Fonterra’s senior executives – on the grounds that the latter would almost certainly order an immediate shut-down of the plant.
The Hautapu facility has apparently been plagued by a series of production problems and its profitability is deemed marginal. A major food safety breach, followed by a lengthy shutdown, could well have resulted in Hautapu’s closure.
Rather than cease production altogether, and pending a more thorough decontamination exercise scheduled to take place in a fortnight’s time, the offending pipe was allegedly flushed out with water.
What remains unclear is whether the rudimentary scouring of the pipe, which took place at the time concerns about possible contamination were first raised, and which was followed, two weeks later, by the scheduled cleaning of the whey-making machinery, was sufficient to keep Hautapu within the prescribed food safety standards.
Also unknown at this time is whether anyone at the Hautapu plant ever raised the specific possibility that the deadly clostridium botulinum bacterium may have made it into the whey product they had just exported. Fonterra itself has stated that the risk of botulism was considered so infinitesimal that, even when Australian tests raised the possibility of its presence (March 2013) it was deemed prudent to gain confirmation before alerting their customers, the Government, or the public (August 2013).
What is clear, however, is that a significant number – perhaps all – of those working at the Hautapu facility were aware that a batch of whey, quite possibly contaminated by “a dirty pipe”, had been allowed to leave the facility; and that, in spite of the risk to the end users of that whey – mothers and babies – production at Hautapu continued.
The manufacturing facility has now been shut down. But only because others, elsewhere, eventually detected its gross failure to maintain food safety standards, and identified the appalling potential consequences of that failure.
It is a sad testimony to the internal culture of Fonterra that not one of the people employed at its Hautapu manufacturing facility felt able to blow the whistle on decision-makers who were not only willing to risk the co-operative’s – and their country’s – reputation, but also the lives of thousands of babies.
UPDATE: The NZDWU has contacted TDB to note that this is Chris Trotter’s opinion and that at this stage the NZDWU does not agree with the issues raised in this blog.