NZ: 100 per cent vulnerable
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.