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Scare or no scare, customers have little choice but Fonterra

The Fonterra logo is seen near the Fonterra Te Rapa plant near Hamilton August 6, 2013. REUTERS/Nigel Marple
The Fonterra logo is seen near the Fonterra Te Rapa plant near Hamilton August 6, 2013. REUTERS/Nigel Marple

By Naomi Tajitsu and Adam Jourdan

WELLINGTON/SHANGHAI (Reuters) - However much China and other big customers strive to rely less on Fonterra after a global food contamination scare this month - now downscaled to a 'false alarm' - the New Zealand firm's grip on the global dairy trade is unlikely to be loosened.

While many countries such as India, China and the United States produce more milk, New Zealand, a small island nation of 4.5 million people, exports more than 90 percent of its output and controls a third of the global dairy trade. Most of those exports from what is dubbed the 'Saudi Arabia of milk' come from Fonterra Co-operative Group Ltd , which is owned by its 10,500 farmer suppliers.

China, New Zealand's biggest customer, is particularly exposed. Annually, it spends around $1 billion on imported milk powder, used in infant formula, sports drinks and confectionary, with some 90 percent of that coming from New Zealand.

Despite Beijing's rhetoric about expanding domestic supply, skimmed and whole milk powder production has risen just 9 percent over the last five years to an estimated 1.28 million tonnes, while consumption has almost doubled to 1.9 million tonnes, data from the Foreign Agricultural Service show.

While Chinese firms increasingly look overseas to secure supply - building processing plants in France, the Netherlands and New Zealand, for example - the country's milk formula market alone is set to double to $25 billion by 2017, and will likely remain dependent on Fonterra.

"If you're not going to source from Fonterra, where are you going to source from? That's the issue," said Shaun Rein, Shanghai-based managing director at China Market Research Group, who describes even big global food and beverage companies as "beholden" to Fonterra.

Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group <600887.SS>, one of China's biggest milk powder producers, said it had not seen any increase in orders for its milk powder. "Nothing has changed in the wake of the Fonterra issue," a spokesperson said.

China was one of a number of countries including Russia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Vietnam to restrict imports of Fonterra products after the company said batches of its whey protein may be contaminated by a bacteria that can cause botulism, a potentially fatal disease. No one fell ill, and independent tests on another 195 samples showed the contamination actually involved a far less dangerous bacteria.

A separate scare involving traces of the agricultural chemical dicyandiamide (DCD) detected in Fonterra's milk supply last year has also caused no illnesses. The company disputes the presence of the chemical is a food safety issue.

The far-reaching, and sometimes extreme, reaction to the Fonterra scare suggests milk is becoming a strategic issue for developing economies where a growing middle class hungers for more protein. It has also punctured New Zealand's reputation as a source of safe, natural and high-quality food.

WISHFUL THINKING

Some dairy industry experts say Fonterra's missteps over the contamination scare will help China, which has pledged to improve food safety, while promoting its domestic industry.

"The new government in China has decided that they want to reestablish credibility of the Chinese dairy sector and to do that the only direct competition they really have is New Zealand," said John Missen, director of Realize Asia, a New Zealand-based exporter and distributor of milk powder in China.

But producing more at home looks a long-shot. Industry data shows raw liquid milk production actually fell in China in the first half of the year, said Sandy Chen, senior analyst for food and agribusiness research at Rabobank in Shanghai.

Over the last five years China has clamped down on small-scale dairy farms, which once provided 60-80 percent of the country's raw milk. Large corporate dairies have yet to fill that gap, and milk powder production is also hobbled by feed supply issues, limited land availability, disease control and a lack of large-scale dairy farming expertise.

"You have to look at the whole chain. A powder supplier would need to have access to raw milk and that's the bottleneck right now. China is not producing sufficient raw milk onshore," said Chen, adding that the prospect of other firms - which could include rivals Nestle , France's Lactalis Group and Dairy Farmers of America - muscling in on Fonterra's market share was "wishful thinking".

That doesn't mean some customers aren't trying.

HOME SUPPORT

In Sri Lanka, a court last week temporarily banned Fonterra from selling and advertising its products. Fonterra's ubiquitous blue, white and red Anchor brand dominates a market where milk powder imports have roughly tripled to $300 million a year since 2000. Colombo, however, wants to promote consumption of local fresh milk to stem capital outflows and increase the viability of domestic farmers, a big voter base. Some politicians went so far as to suggest Fonterra was trying to test chemically tainted products on local consumers.

"This is part of economic nationalism," said an independent analyst based in Sri Lanka, who didn't want to be named due to the sensitivity of the dispute. "This is to destroy Fonterra brands and force consumers to drink locally produced milk."

Fonterra resumed operations in Sri Lanka on Wednesday.

Russia's import ban on Fonterra, its third-largest dairy supplier, came after Moscow slapped similar restrictions on U.S. meat over feed additives in February, drawing allegations of protectionism from western food producers.

"The restriction could ease some pressure on the domestic market," said Andrei Danilenko, head of Russia's national milk producers union. "Russia is not able to cover all its needs from domestic production, so other importers are likely to take a share (of the market) from New Zealand."

PAYBACK?

The backlash against Fonterra - Bangladesh has also held up imports of Fonterra products pending tests - may also be a form of retribution for what some see as long-standing arrogance displayed by the biggest milk supplier on the block.

Two Fonterra customers hit by this month's recalls dispute claims by Fonterra CEO Theo Spierings that he was in constant contact with senior management at their firms in the days after the contamination announcement. They didn't want to be named as they are still discussing the recalls with Fonterra.

Karicare infant formula maker Nutricia, part of France's Danone , said it is considering legal action against Fonterra over the recalls.

Fonterra maintains its customer relations are strong, and feedback has been positive regarding the way it handled this month's recall.

"Personally, I think the company has ... been a little arrogant with their dealing with the international market, and I think they're paying for it," said Realize Asia's Missen.

($1 = 1.2841 New Zealand dollars)

(Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez in COLOMBO and Polina Devitt in MOSCOW; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Ian Geoghegan)

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