Minister vows NZ committed to food security

Updated: 2013-08-23 00:31


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New Zealand's top diplomat assured China of his country's "total and absolute" commitment to food safety on Thursday, following its recent milk powder scandal.

"We expect from our exporters that there should not be any mistakes ... When issues arise, we expect good disclosure and remedial action," New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said, after meeting separately with State Councilor Yang Jiechi and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi .

McCully's three-day visit, which ended on Thursday, came after New Zealand's dairy giant and the world's biggest dairy exporter, Fonterra, announced the discovery of bacteria that can cause botulism in whey powder used in infant formula.

Fonterra's statement sparked a global recall and China's ban on the import of milk powder from New Zealand, where the dairy sector accounts for about one-quarter of its export.

Calling Beijing "an extremely important trading partner", McCully expressed "regret" toward parents affected by the crisis.

Beijing urged Wellington to properly resolve this issue as soon as possible, saying China would like to continue developing relations with New Zealand.

"We hope New Zealand will prevent such a situation from happening again and effectively uphold the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese consumers," Wang said.

McCully said, "The government will take close interest in the proceedings, because when Fonterra disappoints customers, they also disappoint New Zealanders.

China's raw milk powder imported from New Zealand in the first half of this year accounted for more than 80 percent of its total milk powder imports, according to official statistics. Its baby formula market is worth around $2.3 billion annually to New Zealand.

In another blow to the company, Fonterra said on Thursday it was forced to withdraw 42 metric tons of milk powder bound for China because of high nitrite levels. One day before, it was revealed that a shipment of Fonterra-made lactoferrin was stopped in China in May.

Fonterra has launched its own inquiry into the scandal, and the company's managing director of New Zealand Milk Products Gary Romano quit last week following the product recalls.

No infants became ill as a result of the contamination, but the company was accused of mishandling the situation by releasing information too slowly and then giving out incomplete data when it finally became public.

New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key has said that he would like to visit Beijing later this year to personally apologize to Chinese customers.

Former Chinese ambassador to New Zealand Zhang Yuanyuan, said the incidents have not affected bilateral relations yet. The way in which New Zealand, a country heavily reliant on exports, finally resolves the issues will influence its large-scale dairy industry and even and even Chinese increasing dairy investment in the country.

AFP contributed to this story.