Food's 'relatively ordinary' rulebreaker

ANDREW McKENZIE: "I'm not tied to a set of rules, I'm slightly irreverent. That's been a strength but also a weakness.''
ANDREW McKENZIE: "I'm not tied to a set of rules, I'm slightly irreverent. That's been a strength but also a weakness.''

Andrew McKenzie could justly claim the title of the father of modern meat inspection conferred on him by a speaker at a European conference recently.

The retiring chief executive of the Food Safety Authority was a lowly government official in the mid-80s when he had the temerity to challenge the European-imposed rules governing meat inspection.

The actions that flowed from this led to savings of many millions of dollars to the meat industry and freed up international trade.

He encountered his first silly rule as a young Agriculture Ministry meat inspector in the mid-70s. It required the inspectors who worked with meat workers on the slaughter chain to inspect the heads of all sheep to look for signs of disease.

Dr McKenzie knew this was unnecessary because there were no signs of disease on a head that couldn't already be seen in the normal inspection of the carcass, but it was demanded by Britain as a requirement of accepting our exports.

The head had to be skinned, adding huge cost to sheep processing. Three or four extra butchers had to be employed on each chain, as well as one extra meat inspector. Ten years later he was in a position to do something about it.

He convinced the meat companies to run trials. In one day 325,000 animals were killed. No signs of disease were found on the heads that were not already uncovered by inspection of the rest of the carcass.

He presented the results to the British authorities and they agreed to change the rules.

It meant the loss of up to 500 seasonal jobs, but the industry estimated its savings at $10 million-$12m a year.

"That was quite good," he says with a modest smile.

Emboldened, he took a closer look at all the rules imposed on the meat trade by Britain and Europe. Promotion during the public service restructure of the 1980s gave him extra clout, and he convinced the meat industry to stand up to the Eurocrats who were using the rules as effective trade barriers.

"The Europeans said `We have to do all these things', I said `There's no scientific grounds for them', they said `The law says we have to' and I said `I don't think your law does'."

It was a standoff but then he called their bluff. The companies refused to follow the rules and referred the European inspectors to him. "We'd meet and I'd say `There's no rationale for that', and most of them knew I was right."

After four years it came to a head. "One guy said we couldn't ignore the law and he was going to tell on us. That created a bit of a ruckus in Brussels."

He went to the European Union headquarters and argued that many of the rules didn't make sense in the New Zealand context. "They asked me to list them. Three days later I came back with 200 examples. When I flopped this on the table, they said `Ah jeez, this is a bit hard'."

The result was an "equivalency" agreement between Europe and New Zealand.

"That agrees there's a bunch of basic things you need to do to make a difference to public and animal health, but there's also others that are just good meat manufacturing and hygiene practice and they can vary," he says.

"Since then our relationship has gone along really well."

The agreement cleared the way for trade and was used as a template by the United States and Canada.

Crucial to the ongoing success of the agreement, and those that followed, has been New Zealand's reputation for integrity and honesty in international trade.

"We've been scrupulously honest and people can rely on our word," Dr McKenzie says.

"And we're pretty good thinkers – putting new ideas on the table, and taking a lot of their ideas, building on them, trialling them, modifying them and feeding them back into the system."

It has meant a change in the relationship with Britain and Europe, from combative to based on mutual respect. However, a crack has appeared with the pork industry's refusal to accept European assurances that imported pork will not carry the risk of disease.

Backing New Zealand's honest reputation is an electronic certification system that protects the country against fraud.

"A few years ago, we received a note from Kyrgyzstan saying they were banning our beef exports. `We're getting absolute crud,' they told us. `But we don't export beef to you', we said. They said, `But we've got all these certificates'. We said, `Here's our website, here's our password, look for yourself'."

He puts the equivalency agreement at the top of his achievements. Then he talks about his work in developing a new Food Act, which governs domestic food safety.

When the authority took over the responsibility for the Act in 2002, it was found to be "sort of broken", he says. "We had to change that. I provided a lot of the thought leadership about how we could rejig the domestic food safety environment in a way where our people could do a better job without it costing more and being over-regulated. When we put the policy papers up to the Government in 2006 we got the whole 120 recommendations through."

The Food Bill will have its first reading soon.

He is also proud of the team he has built up over 25 years within the authority's several guises. "You start getting people around you who see your vision and want to be a part of it. And when you see people growing and developing, and having a good time in their work, it's hugely satisfying."

At 62, as the authority is being reabsorbed into the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry, he says it is an opportune time to leave. "I've developed a team that is well capable of carrying on without me," he says. "As you get older you start to wonder when you're going to get to a stage where you're not adding value anymore and you're coming down the other side of the slope. I haven't got that feedback, they still want me here."

Work chairing committees of the World Organisation for Animal Health and the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international food standards agency, will continue but he is looking forward to the end of 60-hour weeks and to wresting back control of his life.

He is building a retirement home near Greytown and is eager to start a vegetable garden.

Looking back on his 40-year career he says, "There's been a lot of fun. I'm a relatively ordinary person, but the way I've gone about my job is not. I'm not tied to a set of rules, I'm slightly irreverent." He pauses and smiles. "That's been a strength but also a weakness – I open my mouth too far sometimes."