Fonterra to plead guilty on eve of visit

Just days ahead of a bridge-building exercise by Prime Minister John Key to China, Fonterra says it will plead guilty to charges stemming from a global food safety scare it sparked last year.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) said yesterday that it had laid four charges in the Wellington District Court under the Animal Products Act, for failing to ensure the quality of exports or to inform the regulator when there were signs of trouble.

Fonterra announced it had entered guilty pleas yesterday, with spokeswoman Maury Leyland saying the charges reflected the failings exposed by its own internal review.

Last night, news of the charges and guilty plea prompted a mixed reaction from Waikato farmers.

Otorohanga farmer Colin Murphy said he thought it was a political manoeuvre to appease overseas buyers.

"There's not a lot we can do about it and the Government needs to take something to the Chinese authorities. They have to show they are in control."

Te Awamutu farmer Bruce Rowe also said the timing of the announcement was a little suspect. "But the big picture is I think the thing was handled very badly from day one, and we haven't seen the end of it."

The charges relate to an incident in August when there were fears that bacteria which cause botulism were in whey powder concentrate products manufactured many months earlier. The concentrate is commonly used as an ingredient in infant formula.

It sparked a worldwide product recall, complicated by the fact that Fonterra struggled to establish where the 38 tonnes of ingredients were.

Several countries suspended New Zealand imports, the Government's food safety mechanisms were mocked in Chinese state media and Fonterra executives were hauled to Parliament as ministers said openly that they were struggling to trust what the company said.

Eventually the event turned out to be a false alarm, but the Government has since gone to considerable lengths to try to reassure markets, especially China, that food safety standards are up to scratch.

An independent inquiry found that New Zealand's food safety system was up to international standards. But Key is making good a pledge he made at the time to travel to China to explain the findings.

In recent weeks ministers had claimed that they had no idea of when MPI would release its findings into the incident. Public statements yesterday indicated Fonterra was told of the charges before Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy.

Wang Lutong, the Chinese ambassador to New Zealand, said this week there had been a "problem" but the relationship continued to have "big momentum".

Fairfax Media