UPDATE: Fonterra Contamination Scandal: “An open secret”, “from the start”

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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.

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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.

26 COMMENTS

  1. Everything is subordinated to profit, including reform. This was proved by rodgernomics, when the very Labour Party reformed policy to improve profitability. Reform for profit not in contradiction to it.
    That safety was compromised is only to be expected in a country with liberal economics, it is a matter for the course.
    Capitalist profit sits over us like the Sword of Demolacles threatening to maim society at the slightest disturbance, inseparable from the capitalist throne. From societies wounds and widows one would have to concede it can naught but drive itself upon the sword, as a condition of its existence ever more in conflict with profit. When the workers finally snatch the sword from the thread of capitalist property. Then it will be no longer a device of suffering, but a extension of social power.

    • Hey Chris,
      do you have real evidence of this, or is it unsubstantiated rumour ? Have you talked to any one employed at Hautapu ?

    • Fonterra is a co-operative i.e. the sort of organisation hard core lefties like you tend to favour.

      Interesting you are against profits. Care to show me a successful society wbere profit making is not part of the picture?

      • Co-operative in name, but not really in nature. It just gives owners voting rights, true participation is more than that.

        Some cooperative companies are thriving by the way, Mondragon in Spain (7th largest company) is a good example how cooperatives run well can compete.

      • Fonterra ceased to be a co-operative when it allowed farmer/shareholders to sell the rights to their dividends on the stock market. It may not have been a direct listing, but it is a listing in all but name.

        Its directors/managers are bound by FMA disclosure rules, and so on.

  2. Evidence is golden! Why hate on fonterra it was 1 persons screw up and everyone turns their backs on the corporation! ? They messed up no-ones perfect!!
    They give our children free milk every week day… are they really as bad as this states!.

    ……not in my eyes.

    • …it was 1 persons screw up…

      And you know this – how?

      They messed up no-ones perfect!!

      I’ll remember that next time I run into you with my car…

      But honestly, Jade, aside from your post using almost every cliche I’ve heard off – what, exactly – is your stake in this?

    • “They give our children free milk every week”

      That would be because we have appalling rates of child poverty and child hunger in NZ, and our government turns its back on those children and gets a corporate to do it’s work for it.

      When the idea of Fonterror of providing milk to children in low decile schools was first raised,quite some time ago, Theo Spierings, C.E of Fonterror spoke on Campbell Live and said they were providing milk to these children because milk consumption was dropping in NZ and this was a marketing idea. He stated he did not believe in charity. At least he was being honest.

      Fonterror has such a bad corporate track record that I try to boycott their products in my house. It’s bloody hard though when they own over 90% of the dairy market in NZ. You either accept that you must buy their products at some point or give up dairy, which I’ve considered many times given what cruelties our darling dairy cows suffer in this country.

      I’ve got a whole lotta other reasons why we should hate on fonterra as you say, but I’d run out room. It’s more that one person’s screw up Jade.

    • Sorry Jade, but your apologism doesn’t cut it. Not by a long shot!!

      So what if the “give free milk” to our kids? Since when did giving something away justify bad behaviour??

      Sorry ducks, you’ll have to do better than that!!

  3. Jade, your approach is understandable, but I believe it’s wrong. The dirty pipe was probably only used as a last resort to keep production going. Something happened with the normal equipment being used for production. Often, there is a window within which a solution can be implemented i.e. replacing the equipment used. That was probably not possible within the available window. Next thing is to see if there is another option. By-passing the equipment may be an option and that would probably have been done here. The issue is that the by-pass had not been included in the ‘clean-in-place’ process. Using the by-pass pipe was not a 1-person decision. The production team was involved as well as the engineering department. They were most likely told by higher management to ‘make it work’, because stopping production was not an option. Fonterra is using a Risk assessment Matrix and on that risk matrix, the score would have been 21 or higher as there is a potential of people (babies) getting seriously injured/sick or could die. A score of 21 or higher would require automatic shut down and notification to top management. I cannot accept the idea that top management was not informed about the potential risks.

  4. Tut tut Chris this smells a bit of local gossip, and guessip.

    I hope your sources are impeccable.

    I do not doubt that the Hautapu plant had problems but what you are suggesting is unbelievable.

    So was Pike River, sigh!

    Profit rules. Long live the market. Screw humanity.

    Why is it that it is the greedy bastards and bitches get to make the rules?

    Long live the revolution if there is one coming.

  5. Thank you Chris, I do enjoy your factual accounts of the stories.

    We should not discount Fonterra, they, being New Zealand’s super brand, are responsible for producing and exporting one of New Zealands most valuable products. A Product which is superior anywhere else in the world, and has recently increased investment interest from offshore.

    What annoys me about this exercise in politics is that it will come down to our product being “devalued” on the world market, leaving our production open for slaughter from overseas investors. This potentially will hurt us, but does not devalue the quality we are renowned for.

    This is a mistake, and head\s must role. I am sure Fonterra will discuss the issues in great detail, and someone will be held accountable. Until then, fix the bloody pipe and sell that stuff!

    Its about time New Zealand stuck up for New Zealand, grow some balls and buy back our lively-hoods! We make mistakes, but that sure as hell wont stop up being the best producer of Dairy in the world. If they don’t want our milk, then maybe Fonterra can donate a litre of milk to all households per day.

    🙂 <– thats a smiley face NZ, just in case you forgot!

  6. Having worked in a brewery in my early 20s, one thing that would NOT clean a food-standard pipe is water. Pipes transferring foodstuffs are usually sterilised with steam – lots of it.

    I hope the water they are reported to have used was near boiling point, otherwise they were wasting their time. And water.

    • Steam would a bit unlikely in a modern facility.

      The pipes will normally be cleaned by pumping through hot acid and hot caustic solutions chased by a hot water wash.

      Water alone would be of little use. Steam alone isn’t really very effective either (steam’s expensive and lots of things you might want to get rid of are heat resistant).

  7. This is “News of the World” Stuff – unsubstantiated gossip-mongering. Even if it’s true that “word is spreading through the Waikato” it’s just as likely to be wisdom after the event, when it’s amazing the number of people who apparently knew all the time what was going on.

    Even if the possibility of contamination was recognised, it’s hardly surprising no-one at Hautapu rushed around warning of deadly botulism in the whey:

    “In the United States, 120-150 cases of botulism are reported each year. Of these, approximately 15% are foodborne. Infant botulism, first recognized in 1976, now accounts for the majority of botulism cases each year. Infant botulism occurs when a susceptible infant ingests spores of Clostridium botulinum bacteria. These spores are found in dirt and dust and can contaminate honey.”

    Yeah, that’s right. Honey. And in the entire USA there are less than 20 cases of botulism a year most of which are likely caused by local contamination of food or improper storage.

    So yes, food-stuffs should never be contaminated and if it transpires that this whey was sent out of the factory knowingly contaminated – harmfully or not – heads should roll.

    But if the possibility of contamination was not recognised until afterwards and particularly if there was no reason to suspect that the contamination was actually harmful (and what was in this ‘broken pipe’, eh?) – and particularly considering the potential damage a totally unfounded scare could apparently do to the employment prospects of all the workers at Hautapu plus the international reputation of Fonterra let alone New Zealand, would you have been rushing around screeching “There’s Botulism in the baby formula”, eh, Chris?

    So let’s find out the facts before we rush to judgment on the ‘internal culture’ of Fonterra.

    • Oh rubbish. This is just a case of people putting their own welfare before the health of their customers.

      Given how important image is, Fonterra should have a zero tolerance policy. It’s evident that this hadn’t occurred to at least some of the people who work for the company.

      Not good enough.

      This is third world stuff. The Chinese are right: lack of regulatory oversight and consequences is damaging New Zealand.

  8. I remember a story on Campbell Live a few months ago about Fonterra sacking some staff for making a “Harlem Shuffle” YouTube video – suggesting (perhaps) a climate of fear among Fonterra workers and misplaced priorities as to what really matters when you run a milk production facility

  9. @ DAVIDj . Yep , dead on the money and supportive of Chris Trotters excellent Post .

    I’m surprised that other comments here detract from the point of Chris’s post by arguing semantics .

    A batch of whey went out , seemingly contaminated because of a dirty pipe . And that news would have spread like wildfire throughout the factory . Then every body would have pondered the mortgage , hire purchases and the horrendous basic costs of living and thought ; ” Fuck it . let it go and lets pray to God it slips through without anyone noticing . ”

    That’s called human nature and do you really need proof of that at this stage ? If Fonterras multi millionaire executives would sack a happy employee for a wee dance imagine what they would have done to the poor , slack bastards who never cleaned a pipe correctly ?

    And serves them right on a certain level . Laziness and carelessness in the food industry can have disastrous consequences obviously but the reasons for no one whistle blowing goes deeper than that as Chris suggests .

  10. I’ve been thinking ever since this kicked off in the news that the workers at the plant will have known what was happening, whether they had any power to stop it is another thing. We tend to believe that if processes are in place,that they will be upheld. (We also believe in fairy stories) In this case, we assume that Fonterror will follow strict hygiene standards, but who knows what short cuts have been taken and for what reasons. At this stage all we can do is speculate but my guess is that given Fonterrors track record of being a bad corporate citizen (not intervening in the Sanlu scandal when they knew the product’s safety was compromised, resulting in the death of Chinese babies, being NZ’s biggest agricultural polluter, cases of contract farmers in court over animal welfare abuses)that management ignored workers concerns and reports of unclean equipment. The truth may eventually come out. Who knows.

    The other thing is, folks have criticised the credibility of Mr Trotter’s sources. Firstly he’s not about to say I spoke to such and such on this date at this time and blow their cover is he? Secondly, have a look over to the left of the page, who is one of this sites’ sponsors? The NZ Dairy Worker’s Union. Of course there is talk going on.

  11. I’m always dubious about these things that become common knowledge after the event. Having been involved in a couple myself, all I can say is that the people who claimed to know everything post facto certainly never said a peep beforehand. It seems a very human thing to claim prior knowledge, but only afterwards.

    By the way, I blame Fonterra and think that, as a company, they suck.

  12. I was an executive in a meat company for over 20 years. The company had a very clear policy. Any product that was suspected of any contamination was immediately either destroyed or sent to the fertiliser plant where it was subjected to very high, bacteria-destroying temperatures. Anyone who disobeyed would have been sacked without further discussion. To my knowledge no-one was dismissed for the simple reason that product for human consumption was sancrosant. That should have been the case at Fonterra. The whey should have been destroyed while it was still in storage in May 2012. Heads should roll, but I doubt they will.

  13. Ditto John O, and who can forget entire bays of prime condemned for the “discovery” of a single matchstick or gambrel or less…..by the POMS! Mum and dad! They didn’t need us, nor does anyone now, and when we trip like the slippery dick we picked, we’ll pay.

    We’re minnows with a shark complex. Governed and controlled by vain, arrogant mullet. Helen sweated blood and won favour, now “tentacles” Keyster and his mammon gang (people-free “Republic of China” only yesterday from king fonterrorist!) have reduced us to disposable dags on the filthy US rectum of capitalism.

    China’s going in again. And unlike our own bitter home of steel cruelty and oppression, the gentle giant will continue to treat us with all the respect we deserve. Sadly.

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