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The Melamine in milk food safety incidents


Food Standards Australia and New Zealand

PR Company: 

Food Standards Australia and New Zealand

Award Category: 

Award Type: 

Call Number: 

2010 C4 - 6



Executive Summary: 

The melamine in food incident, where milk products in China were contaminated with the industrial product melamine, ran from September 2008 with the last media enquiry being received on 29 December 2008. Communication of this incident to the public was the responsibility ofFood Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), a small government agency with about 120 staff and 4 specialist communicators. Key messages had to reassure the public that this was not a health risk as infant formula and mainstream dairy products were not imported from China. However, people were asked not to consume the products withdrawn from the shelves and retailers were asked to remove these products from sale quickly. FSANZ used a combination of conventional and new media to communicate the key messages the total audience impressions were evaluated as 313,551,148

Situation Analysis: 

The television images were compelling as frantic Chinese parents rushed their babies with kidney stones to hospital. It was just after the Olympics in September 2008 and melamine powder, which most of us know as the product used to make table tops or picnic ware, had been added to milk in China. This was a deliberate act by organised criminals so the poor quality milk would test as having higher protein content. Babies were particularly vulnerable because they were tiny and infant formula was their main source of food.

Melamine was a major issue for food regulatory agencies everywhere especially as food ingredients are swiftly traded around the world. Not only do food ingredients travel quickly around the world but so does information. Handling the communication meant dealing not only with real food safety risks but also handling a range of myths and legends that circulated instantly.

Communicating the risk was a major challenge in handling this emergency, especially as having ascertained that Chinese infant formula or major dairy products were not imported to Australia so the level of real risk was low.


A National Food Incident Response Protocol Plan has been agreed to by the Australian States and Territories in 2005and has been regular used, tested and evaluated since then. The Protocol was developed in consultation with Emergency Management Australia and mirrors other emergency plans developed for agricultural and health issues. It includes defined processes for message clearance and current emergency contact details.

The communication component of the Protocol is based on risk communication theory, specifically adopting US risk communication expert, Peter Sandman’s, work of:

Risk = hazard + outrage.

For example risk is more than the actual hazard of melamine, which in the case of adults is quite low, because other factors must be taken into account such as consumer outrage over imported food products not being safe.

Target Policies: 

The following target publics were identified:

  • Australian consumers, especially those with babies and small children
  • Australians living or travelling in Asia, especially those with babies and small children
  • General Practitioners who may see symptoms in recently returned travellers, especially babies
  • Importers of these products
  • Food manufacturers who may use imported ingredients
  • Large and small food retailers, especially small Asian specialty shops
  • State and Territory food enforcement agencies.

Note that while FSANZ is a Trans Tasman agency we do not handle food emergencies in New Zealand, however we did work closely with the New Zealand Food Safety Authority.

Communication Strategy: 

Distribution methods

Previous implementation and testing of the National Food Incident Response Protocol Plan has found that the use of both conventional and new media has been the most effective method of communicating a food emergency. This is especially so as major conventional media , such as Australian Associated Press (AAP), the ABC, SBS and Sky news, has undertaken to give priority to communicating emergencies and recalls to the public. AAP was particularly useful in rapid national distribution of material to radio and suburban and rural newspapers. The non-English speaking press, SBS and community radio were very helpful in translating news items into Asian languages.

As a food regulator FSANZ has a very open relationship with the media. An independent analysis of FSANZ’s media coverage in 2008-09 showed we dealt with 286 different journalists in the period and responded to 46 different issues. 

The middle of an emergency is not the time to start making friends. FSANZ has established committees of states and territories; food manufacturers, importers and retailers and consumer groups that met daily during the emergency. Our international network of other government agencies and the World Health Organization also ensured consistent messages internationally.

The FSANZ website regularly has 15,000 visits a week and this peaked much higher during the emergency. We also have a list serve of 7,000 subscribers we can email and a list of 240 key influencers who receive our bi-weekly news summary of food issues. During the emergency we were updating the website and issuing bulletins to these lists on a daily basis.


We aimed to be the central accurate and expert source of information about the incident. As no one in Australia had become ill due to melamine, we opted to use the usual FSANZ spokesperson. Had there been actual cases of illness, the role of spokesperson would have been elevated to the Commonwealth Chief Health Officer.

Our key messages were:

  • Health authorities were taking this issue seriously and were liaising with overseas Governments and agencies
  • No Chinese infant formula or mainstream dairy products were imported into Australia
  • Australian authorities were testing imported Chinese products containing under 10% milk for melamine, we would immediately notify the public of any products recalled or withdrawn.
  • Consumers should not consume any recalled products and dispose of them out of the reach of children
  • Australians travelling in Asia should avoid Chinese milk products, and not feed Chinese infant formula to their babies
  • General Practitioners should be aware of melamine poisoning symptoms especially in babies and children who had travelled in Asia
  • Retailers should remove recalled product from their shelves and return to their importer.


The incident began on 12 September 2009 and we handled our final media enquiry on 26 December 2009. This was the implementation of the communication strategy for each of the stages:

Stage one: Identifying the risk

As the crisis unfolded on the first day, and we didn’t know what exactly was occurring, we issued a media holding statement for the media that we were taking the issue seriously, we had commenced the National Food Incident Response Protocol and we were liaising with Australian and overseas agencies including the World Health Organization. The website page (see http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/scienceandeducation/factsheets/factsheets2008/melamineinfoodsfromchina/ and Appendix A) was updated with these messages and our key stakeholders, including consumer groups, were informed by email. Daily meetings were established with food and health government agencies and continued for 5 weeks. Twice weekly teleconferences were established with food retailers and manufacturers and continued for 4 weeks.

By the second day, we issued a media release confirming that infant formula wasn’t permitted to be imported into Australia from China. This greatly reduced the risk to the Australian public.

However, Australians travelling or living in Asia needed to be made aware that they should not consume the contaminated dairy products and particularly alerted to the risk of their babies consuming infant formula. This was done by using the Australian Government’s www.smarttraveller.gov.au  website, getting messages out through Australian embassies and consulates overseas and by linking to the World Health Organization’s advice on melamine. We worked with the Chief Health Officer to get messages to GPs about being aware of melamine poisoning symptoms via their website and email service.

By the fourth day we issued a media release confirming that food products with more than 10% dairy such as milk, yoghurt and cheese, could only be imported from China under license and none has been imported since 2007. This essentially meant that no Australians were at risk because a small amount of melamine was unlikely to make anyone ill.

We established scripts to our enquiry staff and other government agencies. We prepared to seek assistance from the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing should we be inundated with enquiries but we were able to handle enquiries in house as most people seem to have found the information they needed on our website.

Stage 2: Managing recalls and withdrawals

We were now left with trying to convey to the public that we were checking products imported from China with less than 10% dairy as an ingredient. These products including confectionary, including the iconic White Rabbit Candy, desserts, biscuits, milk beverages and even chocolate body paint.

Our messages were that the products were being withdrawn from the shelves as a precaution, that no one would become ill if they had eaten them as levels of melamine were low (for example you’d have to eat 5 kg of candy a day for many months to have any effect), shopkeepers should remove them from their shelves, and consumers should not consume them and should dispose of them safely.  Media releases were issued for each withdrawal. This was the longest stage of the crisis and there was media interest as each new product was withdrawn. Many of these products were in Asian stores so it was a challenge reaching people who may not speak English. This is where SBS, ethnic media and community radio were especially useful.

Stage 3: Handling rumours

 While searching for contaminated products we also had to manage rumours that melamine was in baking powder, vegetables, eggs, beef, iron supplements and fish or even leaching from cups and plates. All these products had to be tested to reassure consumers the rumours weren’t true. Our message was that we were taking any claims seriously and were testing products. Media was handled on a case by case basis and our website was updated and emails sent to respond to each claims. It was difficult to convey to the public and media that accurate laboratory testing takes time, especially because of the ‘CSI effect’ where people are used to seeing instant results on television.


FSANZ’s independent media analysis by MediaScape showed that there were 719 separate media items on melamine. Only 15 of these items were negative. FSANZ was the leading authority on melamine in 75% of all media. The media coverage reached a total of 313,551,148 audience impressions (see Appendix A for extract from Mediascape report and sample of media coverage, note DVD recordings of TV coverage are not available due to copyright).

Audience impressions September to November 2008



Messages to consumers, retailers and medical practitioners were broadly distributed. One of the reasons for the range of this coverage was the successful use of Australian Associated Press (AAP) as media outlets trust them as a reliable source. Food withdrawals and recalls often came in too late to use conventional media releases so phone calls to AAP, the ABC, SBS, community radio and the Asian Australian newspapers effectively reached a wide audience. A practical case such as melamine shows both conventional and new media have benefits. Our website was a superb tool in ensuring key messages could be regularly updated during the day and emailed out to people. Reaching Australians overseas was most effective using websites. Newspapers, television and radio still reached people, especially non-English speakers. Finally, the face-to-face contact we had was essential in reaching our government partners, international scientists, food manufacturers, importers and retailers and even media. The effectiveness of the communication campaign was also indicated by the low numbers of public enquiries.

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