OPINION: It could hardly get any more serious for New Zealand than having to fend off international doubts about the safety of our milk.
As the world slowly wakes up to seemingly tenuous claims that chemicals in a sample of New Zealand milk may pose an international health risk, Prime Minister John Key has waded into the debate in an attempt to mollify consumers here and across the globe, and assure them all is fine.
Key's comments yesterday - that milk is safe and any comments to the contrary are basically misinformation - are a good public move from the Government in tackling the issue before it gets out of hand. Milk exports are crucial for our economy and there is nobody higher than Key who can offer such a guarantee to our overseas markets.
But the Government, and the Ministry for Primary Industries, have to do more than rely on a reactive statement from the prime minister. They need to act swiftly to provide clear information based on good science which can stop the spread of further rumours before any real damage is done.
All the key players in the dairy industry need to be part of this. A campaign based just on the word of the ministry and Fonterra would not go far enough to assuage worries overseas. Smaller players, such as the A2 Corporation, should be involved, as should the Ministry for the Environment, relevant regional councils, the Dairy Companies Association of New Zealand, farming groups and academics with expertise in the agribusiness and public health fields.
Of course, pulling all those groups together quickly enough to nip this in the bud would not be an easy task, especially given it took four months before the public was even made aware there could be an issue with a chemical found in milk tested by Fonterra.
That chemical, dicyandiamide or DCD, forms the active ingredient in products eco-N and DCn developed by Ravensdown and Ballance Agri-Nutrients respectively. The products are nitrification inhibitors, which reduce nitrogen leaching on dairy farms and, as a consequence, cut pollution into waterways. By doing so, they actually help lessen greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
Sales of the two products have now been suspended after traces of DCD were found in Fonterra milk powder from one of its processing plants, yet to be publicly identified. International food safety groups, believed to include the United States Food and Drug Administration, added the chemical to their testing lists last year and the manufacturers have now removed the products from the shelves in an attempt to stop any tarnishing of the dairy industry's reputation.
In a country where there is understandably great angst about dirty dairying and the pollution of rivers and streams with nitrates, it seems ironic and highly unjust that the use of an environmental friendly product, which aims to achieve precisely the opposite, should now cause such a scare.
But there remain important unanswered or partially answered questions. Why did it take Fonterra two months to alert the Primary Industries Ministry about the low levels of the DCD found in the powder in September last year? Why did it take another two months for the public to find out a working group had been set up to investigate and decide on a course of action?
Why was the public only informed by the ministry and fertiliser co-ops of the issue last week? Why did Fonterra choose not to reveal the chemical findings when launching its $525 million shareholder fund in November, citing them as not "material" to the market. And which processing plant, or farm, was the milk from?
Looking back over that trail of questions gives no great cause for comfort that this has been handled particularly well. In fact, it gives ammunition to those who might benefit from rumour-mongering, even though the ministry, and its standards deputy director-general Carol Barnao, are insisting there are no food safety or health risks.
Unfortunately, misinformation will always fill a vacuum. Our trading partners and milk consumers everywhere deserve proper, thorough answers to chase away the spectres and fears raised by the positive test for DCD.
- The Press