Supplied - Fonterra

From the lab to the boardroom

IT seems mighty mean-spirited to join the long list of commentators beating up on Fonterra, especially when it appears almost no one involved in the great 2013 botulism scare covered themselves in glory.

From the time the piece of plastic hit that batch of whey back in May 2012, when the company opted not to quarantine the affected product, to the now revealed non-accredited testing by AgResearch, to the global panic induced by inopportune comments by Government ministers, the whole thing has been characterised by a long chain of blunders and backside-covering.

But according to Waikato University professor of agribusiness Jacqueline Rowarth, the science was wrong from the start. She says that Fonterra found not live bacteria or toxins in its testing, but spores, which would not have been able to express their toxins because the products in which they were found were dry; spores need more specific surrounds to become dangerous.

In the unlikely event that the spores survived to make it into the gut of a baby, they might cause something called "floppy baby syndrome" - partial paralysis - which would be unpleasant at the time, but would not cause long-term health effects, she told Radio New Zealand.

But because the public - not only of New Zealand, but more crucially our trading partners - was led to believe that one possibility was babies developing fatal botulism, panic ensued and confusion reigned.

Dr Rowarth has long bemoaned Fonterra's inability to communicate its science clearly, and the recent case has shown her to be prescient in her critiques of the company.

Fonterra obviously has some great scientists working within its ranks. But like many New Zealand companies, including many in the food technology, lab testing and biotech sectors, it does not have a scientist at board level who might be able to impress on senior management the importance of communicating the facts clearly - and not giving up until everyone's queries are put to bed.

The company has never communicated well. I see little has changed from the fractious days of old, when journalists were met with stonewalling or downright hostility when they were interested in anything but optimistically-toned puff-pieces. A media plan for when the proverbial hits the fan is invaluable for any corporate - and essential for one that deals in the delicate matter of cross-border food safety. And yet the company's people and its highly paid PR advisory team were either ill-prepared or not listened to.

For a start, perhaps Fonterra could have fronted one of its senior scientists immediately when things started going pear-shaped, someone who could have put some much-needed context around the botulism headline. Instead, they waited until the panic button had been hit before Dr Jeremy Hill, chief technology officer, eventually made it clear that Fonterra was dealing with spores.

Maybe - cynical as it may sound - a female scientist would have given Fonterra's message more resonance in this case.

Scientists are among the most important people we have in business - especially in a country like New Zealand and in a company like Fonterra. For both, a rosy future will depend not just on commodity dairy prices, but what kind of value scientists and food technologists can add to products on their way to consumers. They are the go-to people for business growth, as well as well-informed crisis management, but they are not used nearly enough in either capacity.