New Zealand’s embassy in Beijing was first told by Fonterra in mid-August about reports of contaminated milk making babies sick, but lacked the information to make an official report, the foreign affairs ministry said Saturday.
Green Party politicians say Fonterra should not have sat for six weeks on the knowledge that its Chinese joint venture, Sanlu, had sold milk powder that poisoned babies, killing four children and making thousands sick.
On August 14, Fonterra China gave an informal indication to a New Zealand embassy official about reports of a small number of sick children, and that 43-per cent Fonterra owned Sanlu appeared to have been receiving milk contaminated with melamine.
Five days later, Fonterra China sought advice from the embassy about how the Chinese government would respond to notification of a local health issue, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) said today.
The embassy advised that the Chinese central government would normally be informed by local authorities.
On August 22, Fonterra advised the embassy that Sanlu had a problem with contaminated product, and that Fonterra had urged local authorities for a full product recall.
Over the next week, the embassy and Fonterra continued discussions about how the problem was being handled, with Fonterra providing confidential information including talks with Sanlu and local authorities.
“Notwithstanding some information gaps, the ambassador decided to inform the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Wellington of the situation as he understood it,” the ministry said.
The ambassador told the ministry that Fonterra appeared to have a sensitive problem, and the embassy would report formally when it was confident about the information it was receiving.
The embassy sent a report to the ministry which was received on September 1 and Trade Minister Phil Goff met MFAT officials the next day and sought further information and a briefing paper for ministers as soon as possible.
A formal report was finalised on September 5 and provided to key ministers that weekend, with Prime Minister Helen Clark directing officials to attend a special meeting of ministers on September 8.
“At the direction of ministers, instructions were given to the embassy in Beijing to contact relevant central government agencies in China to convey the views and concerns of the New Zealand Government.”
On September 9, the ambassador and other embassy staff called relevant agencies in China.
There had been daily updates and exchanges between the embassy and officials in Wellington since then, and New Zealand remained in close contact with the Chinese government, MFAT said.
“New Zealand has made a general offer of assistance if Chinese authorities needed anything from us – they have not requested anything at this point.”
The Chinese government has faced panicked parents and public dismay since officials and the Sanlu Group, the nation’s biggest maker of infant milk powder, last week revealed babies were sick with kidney stones and complications from drinking toxic powder.
Fonterra has said its directors were first told of the poisoned infant formula on August 2, and were unable to persuade Sanlu and local officials to make a public recall. It did not speak out publicly because it thought working within the Chinese system was the best way to get the poisoned product off the market.
A nationwide check has found melamine contamination in dairy products ran wider than the tainted milk powder that has sparked a widening scandal, with nearly 10 per cent of samples from China’s three top dairy companies found to be tainted.