The tone of Theo Spierings, chief executive of Fonterra, changed from mea culpa earlier in the week to defiance last night as he assured New Zealanders that Chinese authorities and consumers had “appreciated” the speed with which Fonterra had acted to resolve the botulism crisis.
“The feedback from Chinese customers and authorities - they really appreciated the openness from day one, when we concluded there was a food-safety risk,” he told a press conference in Auckland.
“They appreciated the corrective actions and speed with how we co-operated with customers and got products out of the market, and they appreciated the engagement we made with the authorities, who I met yesterday, myself.”
“Chinese people said to me yesterday that human errors happen, but it depends on how you address the route cause through investigations and corrective actions so that it does not happen again.”
In a well-prepared and even better worded performance, Spierings, who earns NZ$5m per year, did not admit any wrongdoing by Fonterra, and dodged questions on his own performance, saying it was the board’s decision whether or not he should resign.
“I do apologise to consumers and to the public of the anxiety and discomfort this has caused, and it is related to a temporary situation and, let’s say, human error,” he continued.
“Where you operate multiple factories, and employ thousands of people, human errors do happen. I do not know why it happened - we know what happened, but we do not know why it happened.”
The 49-year-old Dutchman also confirmed that all stocks of the whey protein concentrate that could potentially carry the C. botulinum bacterium had been removed and “most importantly, the situation is under control and confined.”
Striking a triumphal note, Spierings paid tribute to Fonterra’s joint-effort with Danone, which through its Nutricia infant formula brand was one of the first companies to take action following the discovery of the contamination.
Calling it an “excellent co-operation”, he highlighted that Danone had conducted tests into its own products and, when it found no trace of C. botulinum, Fonterra then continued and “went deeper” in its testing, the results of which it subsequently disclosed.
Faster in the future
As usual faced with questions about the speed with which Fonterra responded to customers and authorities with information about the contamination, the company’s head of New Zealand milk products, Gary Romano, revealed he would have liked to have made a swifter response.
“If we had our time again, would we have liked some parts... to be faster,” he said.
“We had a test in the laboratory on July 31. Moving from there to understanding which products and which factories, and getting our information together and contacting MPI did take us from July 31 to August 2.
“In terms of... questions around how long - should that have been half a day or a day shorter - I’m sure that will also be part of any review that is done.”
Romano added that he was now confident that New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries had all the information it needed.
“In New Zealand, there is confidence that all the product has now been contained,” he said.