Food traceability rules being tightened

01:55, Dec 11 2013

A report into New Zealand's largest ever food safety scare says the country is not putting nearly enough funding into food safety research.

Today the Government released a report covering part of its inquiry into the events which led to worldwide concern that a bacteria which could cause botulism could be in Fonterra products around the world.

Contaminated whey product could not be immediately traced by New Zealand's largest company, but was known to be in infant formula, creating concern among mothers around the world, including China.

While it was eventually determined that the fears were unfounded, New Zealand's dairy products are still blocked from entering some countries as a result and its reputation for food safety was placed under intense scrutiny.

Today's release covers a review of New Zealand's food safety regulations, but does not discuss the chain of events concerning the botulism scare, as a separate report examining Fonterra's response is being undertaken by the Ministry of Primary Industries.

That report, which could take another three months could potentially lead to Fonterra being prosecuted.
Today's release gave a generally positive view of New Zealand's food safety regime, but makes 29 recommendations, all of which have been approved in principle, along with up to $12 million in funding to implement them.

Food Safety Minister Nikki Kaye said the report, already translated into mandarin and passed to officials in Beijing, said the report had expressed "extreme confidence in our overall systems".

However the report also criticised a lack of spending on research into food safety, specifically a lack of government funding.

"A surprising finding by the Inquiry was the low level of government funding for scientific research in the food safety sector, including in the dairy industry, given its importance to the national economy."

Interviewees said research for food safety struggled to obtain funding, noting that of the hundreds of millions spent in the primary growth partnership, not a cent was being spent on food safety research, the report said.

As part of a ramp up in funding, the report recommended the establishment of a centre of food safety science and research, which could cost $5 million a year.

Kaye said today that the issue of a lack of funding had not been raised with her at all before the report, although food safety was a "significant priority" for the government.

She said the warning was not on existing risks, but ones that would come in the future.

"The tone of this report is ‘you're world leading, overall your systems are sound, but there will be risks in the future'," Kaye said at a press conference this morning.

Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings welcomed the report, saying it affirmed New Zealand's position as a global leader in food production and safety. 

''We have learned critical lessons from what has been a difficult experience, and the findings of this forward-looking review are an important step in our own reputational rebuild,'' Spierings said.

"It is encouraging that many of the recommendations are in line with our own conclusions about the robustness of New Zealand's food production and safety systems.''

Labour's primary industries spokesman Damien O'Connor pointed the finger at "cost cutting" in food safety, claiming the report was an indictment on the creation of the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).

"The report found MPI's role in overseeing the safety of food exported to our international markets became blurred amidst the ministry's many other roles,'' O'Connor said in a statement.

"MPI dropped the ball on food safety and New Zealand's international reputation has been permanently damaged.

The recommendations include:

● putting more officials in China, where exports have trebled since 2007, to build trust there.

● making the Ministry for Primary Industries responsible for crisis-response legislation.

● expanding tools to give officials more power to ensure compliance with food safety standards.

● requiring the dairy industry to improve its traceability of its products, standardising the process for product recalls, and requiring recall simulations.

● giving priority to reforming regulations covering infant formula.

Kaye said today's release did not cover any questions which would determine whether the Government did anything wrong in the botulism scare, although it was possible that issues about its response would be raised in the final part of the report covering the chain of events in August.

"I have had overwhelming feedback from industry, from overseas countries, from other politicians that have said what they think, the government's response has been outstanding, and that we have moved quickly, we didn't create this situation, but we have moved quickly to restore confidence."

Guy said he expected the report would help ease restrictions still being placed on New Zealand dairy products, including a small restriction in China, and wider restrictions in Russia.

The initial response from officials in China to the report had been positive, Guy said.