not doing enough

February 2nd, 2013

Hey, MPI, Fonterra, what are you doing? Whatever it is, it certainly does not seem to be enough.

Why? Take this as an example. The headline reads:

新西兰奶粉出现双氰胺 专家称含量小对身体无害

DCD discovered in New Zealand milk powder. Expert says amount small, no danger to health

Seems alright, right? Yeah, until you read the article. The opening sentence is a brief recap of the situation, but ends by stating Fonterra “kept it secret” for more than three months – and yes, with scare quotes. Why scare quotes? I’m not sure, but it does seem to draw attention to the “kept it secret”. But I suppose there is a difference between an active hush-up and simply neglecting to inform anybody. But which was it? I don’t know, but I’d agree that the length of time between the discovery of DCD in some dairy products and the revelation of that discovery to the public certainly looks suspicious.

The next paragraph interests me because of a certain choice of word:

据了解,新西兰奶粉中的双氰胺来自土壤肥料的污染。新西兰部分牧场使用含有双氰胺的化肥喷洒牧草,这些牧草被牛吃下去后,导致它们所产的牛奶被污染。虽然 新西兰政府目前回应,双氰胺只在少量奶粉中残留,并不会对食品安全造成危害,但由于新西兰是世界最大乳制品出口国,这一问题还是引发不少国家担忧。

According to reports, the DCD in New Zealand milk powder came from soil pollution. Some farms in New Zealand sprayed their pastures with fertiliser containing DCD, and after cows ate the grass, the milk they produced was polluted. Although the New Zealand government has responded, saying that only a few milk powders were contaminated with DCD, and it poses absolutely no threat to food safety, because New Zealand is the world’s biggest dairy exporting country, this issue has caused many countries to be worried.

See that word ‘污染’ – pollution or to pollute – used in each of the first two sentences, first as a noun – soil pollution – and then as a verb – milk they produced was polluted. And what really big issue plagued China through the first month of 2013? A severe air pollution crisis. What has been a major theme in the marketing of New Zealand dairy products in China? That’s right, clean, green, 100% pure, pollution free. Uh oh, New Zealand is no longer pollution free. There’s pollution in the soil and milk.

I also find the last sentence interesting in how it ends with “world’s biggest dairy exporting country” and “many countries worried”. It certainly seems to me to emphasise that MPI’s assurances that only a few products were contaminated with amounts of DCD so tiny that nobody’s health was ever at risk are simply not good enough. You’ve told us this, but hey, this is a big deal and we’re still worried.

The next paragraph is mostly the same statistics that have been endlessly repeated in every article on the subject, except that it starts by claiming that 95% of New Zealand’s dairy produce is exported. Really? My impression was it was closer to 80%, but whatever, either way it’s a huge amount.

The reporter then talks to a professor at China Agricultural University and member of the China Dairy Industry Association Nan Qingxian, who looks at the claims of how much DCD-contaminated milk or milk powder a 60kg adult would have to consume to put their health at risk (and I’m sure I’m not the first to think, fine, but we’re talking about products for infants here), and says:

目前最大的问题是,国际上并没有检测双氰胺的标准,只有美国等少数国家将双氰胺收入食品需检测目录,说明已把它当成有危害风险物质,我国也需尽快这样做。

At present the biggest problem is that there is absolutely no international standard for the testing of DCD, there’s only a few countries like the USA who have put DCD on the list of things that must be tested for in food products, which means it’s already treated as a dangerous product, and China should do the same as soon as possible.

So – so what? It’s still a toxin. Nan also points out that the raw material of DCD is… wait for it…

melamine.

Ah, melamine. The grandmother of all dairy product safety scandals.

And when asked if a similar problem could occur in China, Nan says there’s no need to worry, because most Chinese pasture is still in its original state and fertiliser is not generally used, and in any case, not all fertiliser contains DCD.

So, to sum up, a nice looking headline, but New Zealand milk – polluted. Chinese milk – safe.

And that’s not all I’ve found in the news today. I wonder what Fonterra thinks of this headline:

BABYMILL:并不是所有的优质奶粉都来自新西兰

Babymill: Not all top quality milk powder comes from New Zealand

I hope Fonterra finds that reassuring – don’t worry, New Zealand has competition, there are other sources of milk out there.

And, oh boy, does this reek of puff piece, but it’s highlighting another source of quality milk for those worried about the safety of New Zealand produce. The Netherlands. It starts off trying to explain how the fact a quarter of its land is below sea level and so much of its pasture has been reclaimed from the sea makes the Netherlands’ pasture extremely good. I don’t get it, but whatever, there might be some truth to that. Then it explains that infant formula production is done under the regulations for producing medicine, and so formula is tested much more often through the production process than formula in other countries, and it meets the EU’s tough quality standards. It then says that electricity is the main power source, and wind the main source of Dutch electricity, so the Netherlands’ air quality is good. Of course, it doesn’t mention that the Netherlands is downstream of neighbouring Germany, and not terribly far from the heavy industrial Ruhr, but nevermind. It goes on to point out that the Netherlands is one of the few countries to be free of all common communicable cattle diseases.

So, if we trust People’s Daily, next time we hear clean and green or 100% pure, we’re supposed to think of windmills, tulips, polders and canals, it seems. I wonder if Fonterra has any plans to fly Chinese journalists to New Zealand, take them on tours of the dairy farms and factories of the Waikato talking about how clean and safe the milk powder production process is, then stand them on the beach at Raglan and politely suggest that while the Netherlands has heavy industry very close to its dairy farms, it’s a hell of a long way from New Zealand to anywhere else. Just don’t let them see the state of New Zealand’s lowland waterways.

On my way to lunch I bought a copy of Beijing Youth Daily, and on the front page was this rather short article.

进口乳品存安全问题 进口商应当主动召回

If imported dairy products have safety problems importers should voluntarily recall products

AQSIQ has issued a new regulation, to come into effect on May 1 this year, stating that the importer should voluntarily recall imported dairy products with safety issues, whether they’ve already harmed people’s health or could pose a risk to their health. Also, it bans dairy farmers exporting to China from using feed, feed additives, veterinary medicines and other chemicals harmful to animal or human health banned in either China or the exporting country or territory. Also, AQSIQ will be able to issue warnings and notices of threats to dairy product safety and take conditional measures, such as increasing the strictness of testing and ordering recalls.

Which looks good, but I still can’t see what Fonterra is doing to persuade China that the DCD contamination really was so minor and is all fixed and its products really are safe. Instead, I search the New Zealand Herald and find an article from Wednesday reporting that Westland Milk Products found traces of DCD in some of its products produced before November 1.

The tests revealed minute traces of DCD in samples of Westland products produced before November 1 last year. The evidence indicated products made after that date are free from DCD, the company said.

Westland is conducting further testing in line with customer and government requirements and said it would announce the results as soon as possible.

Fine, but I would like to know when the testing was done and how soon after DCD was found in Fonterra products Westland found out. Westland’s website looks pretty, but doesn’t seem to work too well, and searching it for “DCD” didn’t turn up much of anything.

And news from yesterday that DCD runoff may be damaging aquatic environments:

A University of Otago study has found dicyandiamide (DCD) residues in streams in Otago’s lower Taieri Plain in concentrations that cause natural nitrogen transformation processes to be disrupted in aquatic ecosystems.

Department of zoology researcher Marc Schallenberg conducted laboratory experiments showing that in a wetland system, the presence of DCD inhibits the processes of nitrification and denitrification – two natural processes that help to purify and detoxify waters.

“While DCD’s inhibition of nitrification on land is desirable as it reduces the amount of nitrate entering streams, its similar inhibitory effects within aquatic environments is undesirable, as this could lead to ammonia toxicity in fish and other species, or increased incidences of algal blooms,” Dr Schallenberg said.

And that, sadly, is about all the detail the article gives. The rest is either introduction or more mindless repitition of what we already know.

I guess its good for New Zealand’s river systems that DCD has been withdrawn, even though it was used to prevent nitrate leaching into the rivers, but I wonder how long the contamination will persist. I guess rivers, being flowing things, will gradually flush the DCD out, but how long will it take all of the DCD to leach out of the soil and be washed out into the sea?

But here, at least, is some common sense from the Tourism NZ chief executive:

Tourism NZ chief executive Kevin Bowler said New Zealand had to be very careful about its reputation.

“We need to follow up really good practices around protecting our environment because it’s such an important part of why visitors choose to come here. Obviously none of those stories are particularly helpful to us,” he said while commenting on figures which showed a dip in the number of overseas tourists during the past year.

Yes, absolutely. Because people are let down by the difference between the hype and the reality. I’ve probably told this story a gazillion times, but whatever, years ago I met two Belgian friends of a friend and showed them around Wellington for a couple of days. They told me, “You know, the way you Kiwis treat the environment, if you had the population density of Belgium, your country would be a toxic waste dump”. And they were right. And so was Fred Dagg – we don’t know how lucky we are. It really is the lack of people that keeps New Zealand as clean and green as it is, and as New Zealand’s population continues to grow, if we want our kids and grandkids to run around on beaches and in parks barefoot like we used to do (probably still do, many of us – when she got back from her first trip to New Zealand my wife told all her friends and family about me wandering around with no shoes on) then we really need to improve the way we treat our environment. And if we want to keep our tourism industry and our food exports, we need to treat our environment better, because tourists going home and telling their friends and family that that 1oo% pure thing is a load of nonsense and food safety scandals really does make people think twice about visiting New Zealand or buying our produce.

So, Fonterra, where are you? What are you doing to persuade your formerly devoted Chinese customers that your products are pure and safe? Why am I not seeing any evidence that these efforts of yours are working?

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