Katherine Rich: Fonterra did right thing - never a risk to babies

15 October 2013

All New Zealand food manufacturers breathed a sigh of relief when the tests came back showing there was never any botulism risk from Fonterra’s batches of whey protein. After several weeks of uncertainty and worry for mum and dad shoppers, the company, the food industry, and the country as a whole, the news was greatly welcomed. The negative result meant there was never a risk to babies anywhere in the world.

Now, as the dust settles and Fonterra has announced its own operational changes and the Government inquiry progresses, we should be applauding the companies involved for their precautionary recalls. It was exactly the right thing to do, putting public safety first.

Food withdrawals are never welcome, but they are a fact of life for the global food and grocery industry. Around the world there are food recalls every day, and compared to some countries New Zealand has very few. There are something like 50-60 recalls each year in New Zealand, and most of them don’t hit the news at all because they are not a big deal. They might be for a mislabelling issue or a minor food quality issue, and when they arise the company puts its recall system into gear, and the products are removed like clockwork from wherever in the supply chain and are replaced shortly after.

For most people, the furore surrounding the whey protein recall was a surprise – because such food safety recalls are relatively irregular happenings here.

Contrast New Zealand with the United States market where, being a much larger marketplace, food recalls are far more frequent. A check of the food recall and alert section of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website puts New Zealand’s recalls into context.

In the first two weeks of September there were eight major recalls in the US. And they were all safety issues. The American product recalls included honey roasted peanuts, buns, muffins, salad dressing, potato salad, and sauces, and involved a range of issues, including undeclared milk, wheat, egg, almonds, soy allergen, milk allergen, and product contaminated with salmonella and listeria. The USFDA alerts ranged from warnings that susceptible people “may run the risk of a serious or life-threatening allergic reaction” through to “can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people”, and “can cause miscarriages and stillbirths”. Yikes! Serious stuff.

Some of the recalls involved small amounts of product (at least by American standards), some were much bigger. Interestingly, our searches could not find any that made big news, and no recalls that dominated all media outlets for days on end as we saw in our tiny country.

Certainly, those on the USFDA list paled into insignificance when compared to a baby food alert by Abbott Laboratories in 2010. This involved the recall of five million cans of infant formula after some were found to contain a small beetle or larvae which could cause stomach ache and digestion problems. The recall covered the US, Puerto Rico, Guam and some Caribbean countries, and was estimated to cost the company US$100 million.

Abbott did the right thing and immediately shut down the affected plant and said it was doing “whatever is necessary to maintain the trust of parents.” It is by being able to demonstrate an ability to move that quickly that a company can maintain the confidence of shoppers.

Fonterra and the other companies involved in New Zealand’s recall, particularly Nutricia, showed the very same agility as Abbott did. They had recall systems primed and ready to go, and their preparedness paid off.

There are lessons in this for all food companies, and I’m going to give New Zealand’s own computer-based recall system, ProductRecallnz, another plug here because I can’t stress often enough how vital it is that all food companies are ready.

ProductRecallnz is very, very inexpensive. It’s able to be that way because the organisation that developed and runs it, GS1, is a non-profit organisation and structured the cost so every food company, whatever the size, can afford to be part of it. The point is that the day to sign up is not the day of the recall, because by then a company needs to be organised and not be wasting precious time registering.  Speaking to those FGC members who have already used the system, signing up to ProductRecallnz is a tiny investment for a lot of peace of mind.

There’s no doubt New Zealand has one of the best food safety systems in the world. I know that some companies still struggling to regain sales in China are not ready to accept a ‘glass half full’ interpretation, but the whey concentrate alert came about precisely because New Zealand does have a good food safety system. A manufacturing problem was identified which created food quality doubt, so a precautionary recall was issued and the affected products were quickly identified and pulled from the supply chain. It has been said that in many countries, food quality issues to such a degree would not have been picked up in the first place because checking and testing systems are nowhere near as thorough as New Zealand’s. There are many other manufacturing systems in the world where such quality issues would have passed through into the product and been consumed without anyone knowing.

The Fonterra recall was exactly the right thing to do, even though it turned out to be a false alarm. Although the final results cleared all product, the research report at the time the decision had to be made was crystal clear. Based on AgResearch’s report, there wouldn’t be a single senior leader in the Food & Grocery Council membership who wouldn’t have made the same decision.

Public safety and food quality must always come first and, unlike some other countries where issues like these are sometimes swept under the carpet, New Zealand has a very transparent, well-regulated and accurate food safety system.

It now remains to be seen how soon overseas customer confidence in New Zealand product bounces back to pre-recall levels. With one of the best food safety regimes in the world, I’m sure that will not be too long coming.