Sep 20, 2008

Fran Calls For Inquiry

Fran O'Sullivan looks at the vrious big questions raised by the San Lu milk powder contaniination for Fonterra and the New Zealand Government. She suggests that a formal enquiry is necessary

Prime Minister Helen Clark has been quick to claim international credence for the New Zealand Government's decision to "blow the whistle" on the Chinese toxic baby milk scandal.

But instead of taking credit, Clark should be ordering an official inquiry into why it took a full month from the time our diplomatic staff in Beijing were first informed about the product quality issue to when the whistle was blown.

And, why it ultimately became necessary for her Government to rattle official cages in the Chinese capital.

The Prime Minister will not do this (of course) until the dust settles. But she should.

What needs to be investigated?

There are major questions over what information was conveyed to the Government by Fonterra after its three directors on the San Lu board - who include San Lu's deputy chairman - were categorically told about the melamine contamination on August 2.

New Zealand's diplomats in Beijing were initially briefed about a "product quality" issue by Fonterra representatives on August 14. Subsequent meetings occurred.

But it was not until September 9 - after Agriculture Minister Jim Anderton (a loving granddad) went ballistic at the previous day's Cabinet meeting over the damage being caused to Chinese babies - that the New Zealand Government swung into action.

An inquiry would also pinpoint to what extent New Zealand officials and Fonterra itself might have initially soft-pedalled the issue so as not to cause embarrassment to China during the Olympics.

China's own food control supervisors were sufficiently concerned that they had set up a special action plan to guarantee that all meat, dairy and eggs supplied to athletes would be safe to eat. Inspectors were sent to monitor the entire food supply chains for the Olympic Village.

In San Lu's case, its infant formula had not been inspected for three years. Even after an initial complaint linking San Lu to the outbreak of kidney stone disease in young infants earlier this year, no public action occurred.

By keeping public silence for so long, Fonterra will be seen by some as arguably complicit in a San Lu cover-up.

There has been a prior example where the Clark Government delayed the announcement of bad news so as not to cause embarrassment to China.

In 2004, it suppressed news that Beijing had refused to issue any new import permits for New Zealand meat so as not to spoil the signing ceremony for a trade and economic framework which was the first step towards getting the recent free trade deal.

The issue was raised privately with the visiting Chinese minister Bo Xilai. But it was not until Bo left New Zealand that the Government publicly acknowledged that our China meat trade was in jeopardy.

This suggests a mindset has developed here where "not giving offence to China" takes precedence over upholding our own values. There are valuable lessons to be learnt, if New Zealand has the courage to turn the microscope on itself.