Sunday, 1 September 2013

New Zealand Bacteria Scare. What New Zealand Bacteria Scare?

English: A photomicrograph of Clostridium botu...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Whenever the role of journalism in the social age is questioned, you get the snap answer that breaking news on Twitter is all very well, but 'proper' journalism gives us context and analysis. It has long been my contention that this is one of those qualitative arguments that points to the inevitability of disintermediation.

This was certainly the first thing that went through what passes for my mind as I read in Gulf News over the weekend that 'New Zealand Products Safe To Consume'. This headline inevitably means there is an issue of some kind with New Zealand products, but in the name of 'context and analysis' we're certainly not going to be told what the issue is, just that it's not an issue.

If I read a headline in Gulf News 'Big Gnarly Sabre Toothed Banjax Not About To Eat You', for instance, I know not to turn around. I'd rather not have to confront my impending messy end.

The scare in question is actually quite old by today's standards, dating back to May of last year in fact, when a dirty pipe in one of Fonterra's plants contaminated a batch of whey protein concentrate used in 'Nutricia Karicare', an infant formula product, as well as other drinks including sports drinks, protein drinks and other beverages. 90% of New Zealand's dairy produce comes from Fonterra, a massive agro-business which accounts for something like 7% of New Zealand's GDP. Imagine the lobbying power!.

For some reason the contamination didn't come to light until March of this year, finally causing China to announce a ban of certain products in early August of New Zealand dairy products. The Chinese are, understandably, somewhat nervous about contaminated dairy products and import something like 80% of their infant formula from New Zealand. Recall products are known to have been shipped to China, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia.

Fonterra's news release on the 'quality issue' makes interesting reading. Eight Fonterra customers had been affected by the 'issue' which 'surfaced' in March but didn't require any action other than 'intensive testing' over the subsequent months until finally, on Wednesday 31st July, a sample tested positive for Clostridium botulinum.

The recall affects some 38 tonnes of whey protein but would appear to have impacted over 2,000 metric tonnes of nutritional products that use the protein product - Fonterra has been pretty cagey about the identities of its customers - and presumably has been depending on the considerable clout it must have in New Zealand to minimise the coverage of a food contamination scare that begs questions about who knew what and when - and how thousands of tonnes of contaminated products can be put on the market but the identities of the companies producing those products be protected.

It all reads a little like the horse meat scare in Europe - one producer's product can contaminate thousands of tonnes of downstream products. There are other whiffs of sulphur around the story, too - scientists questioning how a 'dirty pipe' could have been involved, the timescale of the testing and recall, why expensive tests for Clostridium, not normally required for whey protein products, were being carried out and so on. Fonterra's head of milk products has subsequently resigned.

In any case, New Zealand Government laboratories have now confirmed that the samples tested were not actually contaminated with botulism causing clostridium botulinum but with the just as worrying-sounding but relatively benign Clostridium sporogenes. So that's all okay, then.

All of which has been brilliantly boiled down by Gulf News to a reassuring blue 'don't panic' - in fact there's no problem to the point you don't even need to know what the problem there isn't is.
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