Kiwi milk scandal 'lost in translation'

ANDREA FOX
Last updated 14:07 29/01/2013

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Questions about the safety of New Zealand milk have "not come on the radar" in China despite claims of international concern, says Beijing-based Kiwi and trade and business commentator David Mahon.

There have been reports of international questions after last week's revelations that the chemical dicyandiamide (DCD) used in fertiliser had been found in New Zealand dairy products four months ago.

But Mahon said there had been no major coverage of the find in Chinese newspapers, or in American and British papers in China, and under 10,000 mentions on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. In a country of 1.3 billion, that was "moderate", he said.

The New Zealand ambassador to China had held a media conference in Beijing yesterday and re-iterated the official New Zealand message that Kiwi milk is safe, Mahon said.

In the past 12 hours Twitter-equivalent traffic in China on the issue had fallen to 4000.

"It hasn't really hit here in any major way - it's not a runaway issue. It really hasn't come on the radar," Mahon said.

"As long as New Zealand is clear and outspoken in terms of the facts to date, and it seems the Prime Minister's (John Key) statement was straightforward and unequivocating, that is what people will listen to. You don't make statements like that unless you have the science to back it up."

Yesterday Key said New Zealand milk was safe and reports to the contrary were spreading misinformation.

He said DCD, used to inhibit nitrate leaching into waterways from fertiliser treatments and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, was put on farms twice a year. Testing had shown very slight traces from one Fonterra milk processing plant, Key said.

China is New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra's biggest customer. Chinese companies are increasingly focusing on New Zealand as an investment base for dairy product manufacture to feed China's huge population, which has been plagued with food safety scares.

In 2008 young children in China died and hundreds suffered kidney problems and injuries from drinking infant formula laced with the industrial chemical melamine. The deliberate contamination, by Chinese milk suppliers to dairy companies in a bid to artificially lift protein readings, involved several Chinese dairy companies - but it was a Fonterra joint venture, the now bankrupt SanLu company, that was first discovered to have melamine in its products.

Last week it was revealed in joint announcements by the Ministry for Primary Industries, fertiliser companies Ravensdown and Ballance, that Fonterra had found minute traces of DCD in samples of its products last year. The two fertiliser companies last week said they had voluntarily suspended sales ond use of DCD treatment on farm land.

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Mahon said the delay between Fonterra finding the traces in September and last week's announcement would have been to "get the science right".

He said the word melamine had been raised in confusion with DCD in China only because in Chinese the two words were spelt similarly except for one character.

"Things have been lost in translation."

The ministry said last week that when DCD residue had been discovered and could present a trade issue, it set up a working group last year to assess the impact, even though there was no food safety issue involved.

Questions are also being raised as to whether Fonterra delayed any announcement over the discovery until after the NZX listing of units on November 30 last year.

- Waikato

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