Chinese food safety standards up with the best: NZ berry grower
David Berry is a man on a mission - to change the negative view people have of Chinese food safety standards.
The United Kingdom-based Kiwi is the owner of a berry processing plant in Shandong province which has been caught up in food scares related to other berry exporters, although none of his products have ever been recalled.
Chief of the scares was the Ministry for Primary Industries' (MPI) recall in 2015 of frozen blackberries and strawberries grown in China, because of a supposed risk of hepatitis A.
In fact, tests failed to reveal any problems with the berries. Australian company Patties Foods had $14 million wiped from its profits over similar claims, and it decided to exit the frozen berry business.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott said at the time it was the responsibility of businesses "not to poison their customers" after 18 Australians tested positive for Hepatitis A.
But the case against the berries was never proven, Berry said, and there was never a retraction from health authorities.
He said the likelihood of a Hepatitis A contamination was "extremely remote" for a number of reasons:
* A very low level of Hepatitis A in the Chinese population at less than 1 case per 100,000 - similar to Australia and New Zealand;
* A universal vaccination programme in place as there is in the United States but not in Australia and New Zealand;
* Compulsory health tests including liver fitness tests for all staff working in food factories - which does not happen in New Zealand;
* High factory hygiene standards;
* Pathogen kill steps in the production process which are not used in many other countries.
"These measures taken together bring China to the forefront of safe food producers as is increasingly recognised by some leading world fruit industry users. The unfortunate thing is these measures are not well communicated so public perception is lagging behind the reality.
"I'd like MPI to say it has studied the situation in depth and is satisfied there is not a problem."
In response, an MPI spokesman said: "MPI makes recall decisions based on a risk assessment of available scientific evidence and we remain satisfied with the decisions made to protect the New Zealand public during the imported frozen berries recall."
Chief executive of the NZ China Council, Stephen Jacobi, said that in China consumers were becoming more sensitive to issues of quality and "clearly suppliers are responding to this".
Berry said he started his berry growing and processing business in Shandong in the early 2000s because of lower costs and favourable growing conditions.
He and his Chinese business partner have developed a processing plant for their company Dragons Garden which he says is superior to most in New Zealand or Australia.
To clean the berries of pathogens, they use a chlorine bath and then wash any chlorine residue off completely. Ozone is then pumped into the packing room as a further safeguard.
His company has exported 46.8 million portions of berries to New Zealand and Australia without incident. He has an approved China Inspection and Quarantine laboratory on site, but tests are still conducted in New Zealand.
"MPI has a job to do. But by this stage they should have good confidence that the tests that are being carried out in China are a trustworthy assurance of the low micro counts on Chinese fruit."
In a recent submission to Australian food safety officials, Berry said examples he had seen of some Australian safety practices showed berry exporters were behind China.
"We can say for sure they would not be granted an export licence for frozen fruit if they were based in China. It is not just Australia that is behind however; in Europe it is standard practice to wash only with potable water without the chlorine kill step."
In Europe companies can export products that have E.coli counts as high as 1000 parts per million, whereas in China the maximum is 10ppm. MPI "pings" his products if they go to 3ppm.
Berry does not deny China has experienced serious food safety problems, especially the scandal in 2008 when melamine was found to have been added to milk, causing the deaths of children.
Health regulators do not always get it right, he said, pointing to the 2011 case when German bean sprouts killed 22 people and made thousands ill. Initially the deaths were blamed on vegetables imported from Spain.
Berry's company, in which he has 55 per cent ownership, employs 150 at peak growing and packing time. It exports largely to the UK, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.