12 Aug 2013

Rowarth says Fonterra poor at communicating science

1:12 pm on 12 August 2013

An agricultural scientist says Fonterra's inability to ask the right questions and accurately communicate the risk during the botulism scare led to unnecessary global panic.

Professor of agribusiness at Waikato University, Jacqueline Rowarth, is a co-owner of a dairy farm which supplies Fonterra, and stood unsuccessfully for Fonterra's board last year.

She says the dairy co-op told the public only on Friday that it had found spores in its testing - not bacteria nor toxin - and the difference is incredibly important.

Jacqueline Rowarth

Jacqueline Rowarth Photo: Supplied.

"I think that had we known that at the beginning we would have been able to be quite clear that it wasn't a botulism scare.

"When you have spore, they are just little dry dessicated whats-it things and they are not doing anything, they're not growing. In order to make them grow which is what they have to do before they can express the toxin, you need specific conditions which are pretty rare ... low sugar, etcetera.

"And had we known immediately that we were dealing with spore, nobody would have said this is a problem for our whole export economy because most of our exports are chilled or frozen.

"And then we say 'yes but shock horror, it's babies'. Babies ... because they don't have very acid stomachs, it is possible for the spore to get through into the intestine of a baby and grow. And what tends to happen if there is the toxin expressed, which is not always the case, we have what is termed 'floppy baby syndrome' with partial paralysis. And experts say that this is very rarely of long term significance. The baby gets constipated, it's not pleasant at the time but it's not a long term health issue.

"And so because none of this was explained and we didn't know whether we were actually dealing with botulism as in 'the toxin', people got fairly concerned about it because people die of botulism, it's about 4% fatality from hospitalised cases."

Professor Rowarth says Fonterra has repeatedly shown it doesn't have the ability to communicate intelligently when it comes to science, and that the co-op has turned down her offer to to assist.

"My point keeps being that the combination of science and communication is not within Fonterra so they just haven't got it right again."