It all started with a street vendor in Johor, Malaysia, roasting coffee beans in a wok.
But it quickly spread. Before long, a popular butter made in a Waikato factory was on the banned list in two Asian countries.
Then questions were raised about other products coming from the same giant churn in the Fonterra factory at Morrinsville and suddenly a multimillion- dollar butter trade was at risk.
This crisis erupted more than a year ago and the fact that you haven't heard about it till now means it was successfully resolved. Trading resumed two months ago.
But it could have been worse. Its resolution is thanks to thorough investigative work by the organisation that looks after New Zealand's reputation for producing halal food.
Halal is the Islamic guideline for food quality governing slaughter of animals, blood products and the exclusion of pork.
And pork was what the trouble was all about.
The street vendor was roasting his coffee beans in Ballantyne Golden Churn canned butter, made for the Australian firm by Fonterra in Morrinsville.
The Malaysian authorities received a complaint that the beans had a pork taste to them and their tests of the wok confirmed this.
It must have been obvious that the wok cook had introduced the pork, perhaps in lard, but such is the importance of halal food in the Malaysian diet that it was decided to be better safe than sorry.
Trade in Ballantyne's butter, widely used in a popular cake, was stopped. Brunei quickly followed suit.
Indonesia said it had faith in its own auditing and Singapore did its own tests and found Golden Churn to be halal, so trade there continued. After such a sudden flurry of action everything slowed down.
Malaysia tested Golden Churn in other provinces and so did Australia and New Zealand. Further tests were conducted in neutral Germany.
To meet the international testing standard, New Zealand had to upgrade its system. It now has polymerase chain reaction testing for pigs, which is able to search for miniscule quantities of pigs' unique DNA sequence and to amplify it.
In New Zealand, the certifier and auditor of halal compliance, New Zealand Islamic Processed Foods (NZIPF), launched an investigation of the Morrinsville plant with Fonterra's support. All butter exports to Malaysia from the plant were halted for six weeks.
Every effort was made to discover how pork could have got into the butter.
NZIPF chief executive Don Carson first looked at sabotage. And ruled it out. 'It would have been impossible to add enough pork in New Zealand to get enough contamination into cans collected randomly off the shelf in Malaysia. It would have to have been in every batch of butter going into the churn,' he says.
The odds of random deliberate contamination being picked up in tests were also minute.
Next was commercial gain. But the economics of that did not make sense. 'You would have to balance the porcine fat with protein, and the extra cost of that would be more than the milk was worth.'
The risk of accidental contamination was next to be looked at. The Malaysians raised concerns about kitchen scraps, even of a pig getting into a milking shed.
The water supply to farms supplying milk to Morrinsville was investigated, drawing on Fonterra's meticulous record- keeping. 'The records are diabolically precise,' Carson says. 'We were able to establish how much rain there had been just prior to milking for the offending batches, which went back three years, so you could tell if the farmers were washing the teats and how much mud would have been around.'
He even went as far as discovering if wild pigs were in the bush at the headwaters to the Morrinsville water supply and, if there were, how many pigs would be needed before contamination could get through the treatment plant's sand filters. 'It would have been a huge number,' he says with a laugh.
Every avenue was explored and ruled out. The milking sheds were declared clean, the factory's water source was an aquifer and no fault was found with the butter-making process. In the factory the controls were so strict that audits were being carried out on 50 days of the year.
Finally, a delegation from Jakim, the Malaysian religious authority, and the provinces of Johor and Sarawak, came to New Zealand. They inspected the plant, visited a dairy farm, and received Carson's report.
They gave New Zealand the all-clear and lifted the ban on Golden Churn. The crisis was over.
'They were persuaded that it didn't make sense to look at New Zealand,' Carson says.
He says it was important to act swiftly and thoroughly.
"If we couldn't please the Malaysians, their dissatisfaction could have quickly spread across the Muslim world.'
- © Fairfax NZ News
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