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Fonterra butter recall vital to protect brand synonymous with New Zealand dairy, expert

By Ben Bouckley , 23-Feb-2012

Fonterra’s recall decision concerning 410,000 packs of butter was the right thing to do, and action to this front to protect its brand image was crucial, according to a top UK-based food safety expert.

The firm issued the recall on February 14 after two isolated consumer complaints about ‘fine metal objects’ in two butter batches, and committed itself to a thorough investigation regarding their presence.

Asked what progress had been made in this regard, a Fonterra spokesman told DairyReporter.com this morning that the investigation was ongoing: “The two incidents were isolated, so the investigation has to be pretty thorough."

So did Fonterra believe that the metal objects had entered the butter packs during the manufacturing process? "That’s something that we need to look at, and we can’t really discuss that until the investigation is complete and we know what happened," the spokesman said.

“Safety has always got to be our top priority, and that’s why we took this precaution [in issuing the recall],” he added.

We asked Tony Hines, MBE, head of food security and crisis management at Leatherhead Food Research, whether a recall in such a scenario should always be the priority for a brand – whatever the cost, or whether Fonterra could have taken other steps?

Hines told DairyReporter.com: “As a responsible company Fonterra has done pretty well on this, and we don’t even know if they were even to blame. This could be some clever hoaxster somewhere.”

Synonymous with NZ dairy

He added: “The brand value and the name Fonterra is synonymous with dairy and New Zealand, so the cost of this recall is incidental compared with the values that the brand has in the eyes of consumers and stakeholders.

“Fonterra’s responsibility is to get the message out as strongly as possible. The value of their brand is such that they want you to go and have a look in your fridge and check for the butter. But that said, most consumers will not bother.”

“A number of companies have product recall insurance, and although I don’t know if Fonterra has, they are big enough to absorb a cost. Say a pack of butter costs from around £1 (1.18) in the UK. The raw material loss and loss of sales could be around £410,000 pounds. But how much does Fonterra turnover? It’s a drop in the ocean.”

Simply put, Fonterra wanted to reassure consumers that it was a responsible company for whom their safety was its number one priority, Hines added.

Production process origin?

Discussing the metal objects specifically, Hines said: “What I don’t know sitting in my office is how big the pieces of metal were, what they were, where they came from. But normally when you get this kind of thing, somewhere in the production process two bits of metal have rubbed together.

“Very small bits of metal then end up in something, since they are too small to be detected by a metal detector. They recalled 410,000 packs, but were they were all from the retail environment? In which case you could probably get 100% back.

“But if those 410,000 packs were in the public domain – then did they get 409,000 packs back from the public or did they get 33? It’s about consumers doing their own risk assessment – how many of the packs had already been eaten, and how many consumers even bothered to look?”

Hines added that, if the pieces of metal were very small – and provided there were more out there, which is not known – some consumers may simply have eaten them in ignorance of their presence.

“Fonterra may well know what the metal is and its composition [if the incident happened on a production line] and they’ll probably get a few people who claim to have found metal, but of course didn’t really. But a tiny filing probably wouldn’t do anyone any harm anyway,” Hines said.

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