6 Aug 2013

Govt officials put in Fonterra offices

10:20 pm on 6 August 2013

Government officials are now stationed in Fonterra's offices to get to the bottom of the contamination scare.

Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce was sent to Auckland on Monday for meetings with Fonterra executives.

Prime Minister John Key said officials from the Ministry for Primary Industries have been put into the company's offices to get "absolute clarity" about the problem.

There are "gaps" in the information Fonterra has provided to the government.

Mr Key said he does not believe Fonterra is deliberately withholding information, but the breadth of the problem appears to be wider than originally thought.

Fonterra's biggest customer, China, has suspended imports of its whey protein, and a product known as base infant powder formula.

China acted after it was revealed 38 tonnes of whey protein concentrate were contaminated with the bacterium that can cause botulism, at a plant in Waikato.

AAP reports a ministerial response team has been established for a whole-of-government approach to the issue.

Labour's leader, David Shearer, says much work will have to be done to restore confidence in the domestic and international markets.

Trading partners need 'certainty and confidence'

Food Safety Minister Nikki Kaye says officials have been sent to Australia as well as several New Zealand centres to ensure the necessary information is gathered on the whereabouts of all the products containing the contaminated whey powder.

Ms Kaye told Morning Report that New Zealand's trading partners need to be given certainty and confidence.

"We rely on the information that Fonterra gives us. The information did change which I have said previously is disappointing. And so on the information that I've got that's exactly what the traceability workstream are doing, and if the information changes, obviously we will update people.

"But I feel a lot more confident that I did 24 hours ago."

Meanwhile, Trade Minister Tim Groser now says Russia has not banned New Zealand milk products, as was earlier thought, but he says it is concerning that China has banned Fonterra-manufactured products from Australia.

He says while he is not aware of "heightened concern" about the ban from Australia that does not mean they are not worried about it. He says the response from across the Tasman has been "very controlled".

Nikki Kaye was to meet grocery sector representatives on Monday night, after MPI advised consumers to avoid two infant formula products made by Nutricia.

The Prime Minister said on Monday the extent of the damage to New Zealand's reputation will depend on how the contamination scare is handled in the next few weeks.

John Key said the situation is extremely serious and the Government is deeply concerned. He said any damage to New Zealand's reputation is dependent on this country's immediate response.

Contamination occurred last year

Thirty eight tonnes of whey produced in May 2012 was contaminated by a dirty pipe at one of Fonterra's processing plants in Waikato.

Testing in March indicated a problem and the whey tested positive for clostridium botulinum last Wednesday. Fonterra notified the Ministry for Primary Industries on Friday afternoon. The batches of whey product were used in 870 tonnes of products.