Consumers 'misled' on milk safety

Last updated 00:00 09/10/2007

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The New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) is being accused of running a deliberate and sustained campaign of misinformation about how safe milk is to drink.

Lincoln University farm management expert Professor Keith Woodford has uncovered evidence he believes shows the authority had a predetermined view on an independent study it commissioned into the safety of New Zealand's main milk type.

Woodford was the author of recently published book Devil in the Milk.

Official papers released to him reveal the Government agency's approach to dealing with the growing public debate several years ago about the dominant A1 milk, produced by Fonterra, and the alternative A2 milk, promoted and licensed by A2 Corporation.

A2 milk does not contain the A1 milk-protein that some link to illnesses including type-one diabetes, heart disease, autism, schizophrenia and Crohn's disease.

Woodford told The Press the most alarming statement disclosed by the papers was the conclusion the authority drew from Professor Boyd Swinburn's report.

The authority's conclusion contradicted Swinburn's findings.

The released documents also show:

There was advice and lobbying from Fonterra during the review process, but the NZFSA kept the A2 Corporation out of the loop.

NZFSA released the report when Swinburn was unavailable to talk publicly about it.

NZFSA did not want the media debating the science behind A1 and A2 milk.

Woodford said the NZFSA had started with a predetermined position and had "further and further compromised themselves".

"And when Professor Swinburn pointed out to them that their key message, supposedly taken from his report, was inconsistent with his actual findings, they made no alteration to that message," Woodford said.

"The starting and predetermined position of NZFSA may have seemed reasonable and indeed noble, but means got in the way of ends, and once on the slippery slide they have chosen to continue that way rather than try and make the big and embarrassing leap back to firm ground."

Woodford claims the facts add up to a campaign of "sustained misinformation" by the authority.

He sent a report based on the documents to Food Safety Minister Annette King and to Green Party MP Sue Kedgley yesterday.

The NZFSA said last night that Woodford's interpretations were wrong, his latest document was "further conjecture and opinion", and it had no concerns about the "conspiracy claims".

"Keith Woodford clearly has a personal interest in this area but is not a recognised expert in the medical or biochemical fields," NZFSA director of joint food standards Carole Inkster said.

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"Everyone is welcome to their opinion. The only concern that we have is that the claims being made by Keith Woodford could lead some people to decide to avoid milk altogether."

Woodford said the authority had concluded "there is no evidence that either (A1 or A2) milk poses a food safety issue".

"However, the report that Professor Swinburn produced did not provide a message that `all milk was safe'. Swinburn has subsequently been explicit that he purposefully avoided such a phrase."

Emails from August 2004 released under the Official Information Act show Swinburn was unhappy with the NZFSA's treatment of his investigation.

"I have to say I find it a bit disappointing," Swinburn said in an email to then NZFSA policy director Inkster.

"Firstly, it was released at a time when I was not pre-warned and indeed was committed with teaching so that I could not take media calls ...

"The NZFSA spin turned out to be a rather classic government agency response of trying to paint it as a non-issue with a degree of certainty that it didn't warrant. That is why I had recommended a balanced communication from government about the uncertainty, and I suspect it is why the lay summary was pulled."

Inkster replied, saying she had misunderstood his dates of availability and the authority had not wanted to delay the release.

"The misunderstanding on the dates then compounded in terms of access of the media to you. However, we did not believe that was a detraction in so far as the media were not able to engage on points of science unnecessarily and potentially beat up the issue."

Swinburn replied: "The media or others can and should debate the science, so I don't see that as negative" and said if he had a child with type-1 diabetes he would certainly use A2 milk.

Woodford claims it would have been "counter-productive" for NZFSA if Swinburn had been available to talk to media.

Inkster said last night that the authority had wanted the media to engage and could not "recall the exact words" of her email.

Woodford said the apparent closeness of Fonterra to the authority was concerning.

An October 2003 email from Fonterra to Inkster says: "It is important that NZFSA keeps the momentum up on Boyd Swinburn's report and that its decision on the merits of A2's claims be published ASAP."

A Fonterra spokesman said Fonterra was a responsible organisation and was "comfortable" with the position of the NZFSA.

- The Press

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