NZ: 100 per cent vul­ner­a­ble

Kapi-Mana News - - OPINION/FEATURE -

Years ago, the Health Depart­ment ex­plained to the me­dia that its in­de­pen­dent test­ing of health reme­dies only swung into ac­tion when ‘‘some­one turns green or bits start fall­ing off them’’.

Sim­i­lar at­ti­tudes have been ev­i­dent dur­ing the re­sponse to Fon­terra’s whey prod­ucts con­tam­i­na­tion scan­dal.

In de­fence of Fon­terra and New Zealand’s ‘‘ 100 per cent pure’’ brand, some ob­servers have even ar­gued that be­cause no baby has caught bot­u­lism ( as yet, cross fin­gers), the whole in­ci­dent might blow over.

Global milk pow­der mar­kets, af­ter all, have been rel­a­tively un­ruf­fled. Nice try, but that ar­gu­ment misses the point by a coun­try mile.

Yes, it would be worse if ba­bies were dy­ing.

Yet the fear they might get sick was surely a disas­ter, what­ever the mar­ket cal­cu­la­tions.

Par­ent­hood is anx­i­ety-in­duc­ing enough, with­out ask­ing par­ents to play Rus­sian roulette with what they’re feed­ing their ba­bies.

Glob­ally, this coun­try’s rep­u­ta­tion as a food ex­porter that can be trusted to guar­an­tee rea­son­able pro­tec­tion for its cus­tomers has taken a size­able hit.

That said, there was some truth in the claim that the Chi­nese me­dia seized on the scan­dal as part of its wider cam­paign to dis­credit for­eign prod­ucts and pro­mote China’s lo­cal sup­pli­ers.

Pre­sum­ably Prime Min­is­ter John Key had China in mind when he said that we shouldn’t let any­one talk New Zealand down in the wake of the scan­dal.

True enough. But not giv­ing our fair-weather friends in China such golden op­por­tu­ni­ties to talk us down would have been a bet­ter pre-emp­tive pol­icy.

Fon­terra leads New Zealand’s ex­port drive, and China is its most valu­able mar­ket – and un­like big­ger and more di­ver­si­fied economies, we’re ex­tremely vul­ner­a­ble.

That’s even be­fore we try to pro­mote to the world the truth of our ‘‘100 per cent pure’’ brand, as a tourist des­ti­na­tion and ex­porter of healthy food.

I’m not sure if there’s a mar­ket- ing ver­sion of Stock­holm Syn­drome – when the peo­ple mar­ket­ing a cam­paign get cap­tured by it – but New Zealan­ders do seem to treat ‘‘ 100 per cent pure’’ as a fairly ac­cu­rate ex­pres­sion of our national iden­tity.

Our hands are clean, our in­ten­tions are pure. (De­spite the pol­lu­tion in our rivers.) So, like us, please.

That national ca­pac­ity for selfdeception means that some­thing like a con­tam­i­na­tion cri­sis is all too read­ily seen as a puz­zling ex­cep­tion that can be put right by re­assert­ing our ba­sic de­cency and trust­wor­thi­ness.

Yet de­spite Fon­terra preach­ing the virtues of trans­parency, that word took on a very elas­tic mean­ing last week.

It meant be­ing ‘‘trans­par­ent’’ about the good news con­cern­ing what Fon­terra was do­ing to trace its dodgy whey and re­as­sure its cus­tomers.

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, though, Fon­terra was be­ing re­mark­ably opaque about ( a) why it had de­layed in­form­ing the pub­lic, (b) the likely con­se­quences for those re­spon­si­ble, (c) the scale of likely com­pen­sa­tion claims against Fon­terra, and ( d) what harm (short of bot­u­lism) might po­ten­tially ac­crue to the ba­bies who Fon­terra had al­lowed to keep on con­sum­ing the prod­ucts con­cerned, while it mulled over its pub­lic re­la­tions strat­egy for man­ag­ing the rev­e­la­tions.

Ul­ti­mately, the scan­dal has un­der­lined New Zealand’s danger­ous de­pen­dence on the China mar­ket, on a nar­row range of ex­ports and on a dairy cham­pion with dodgy sys­tems of qual­ity con­trol.

Tough prob­lems in­deed for any govern­ment to man­age.

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