Fonterra scare could have been prevented
The botched Fonterra botulism scare in August last year might have been prevented if an independent food safety centre had existed, a top toxicologist says.
Professor Ian Shaw, of the University of Canterbury, is among those to welcome the idea of a $5 million food safety centre, which was recommended last month by a government inquiry into New Zealand's food safety systems.
Shaw, who has chaired a food safety body in the UK, said the Government's proposal was "a bloody good idea".
If there had been a food safety centre in place when the Fonterra scare occurred, the test results might have been known more quickly and the false alarm possibly avoided, he said.
"It would have been very obvious to anyone with half a brain in food safety that the analysis hadn't been done properly, [or rather] the samples not taken appropriately and the results not interpreted appropriately," Shaw said.
Any centre would need to be independent of government and industry.
"New Zealand's moved in a very strange way recently in respect to food safety in that it brought the Food Safety Authority into the Ministry for Primary Industries and took away all its independence," Shaw said.
He agreed some trading partners preferred to have government involvement, but a department which had authority to both determine food safety and give export permits would always raise questions.
"There's no question whatsoever in my mind that our Government would try and sell us duff food. Of course they wouldn't.
"But I don't think they would like it to be known that there might be the residue of a pesticide in food that might affect exports, if they can do something about it without us knowing."
The present food safety regime largely relied on manufacturers following legislation, although random testing was done by the Ministry for Primary Industries if there was a problem or rumour.
There was also a four-year review of general food products.
Shaw said he was unsure exactly what kind of food safety centre the Government had in mind, but he had written to suggest it looked at the one that already running at Lincoln and Canterbury universities.
Shaw, the centre's co-director, said it received state funding to educate industry on food safety and could be extended to provide research and advice.
The idea of a food safety centre was also welcomed by a group of fresh food producers, the Produce Marketing Association Australia and New Zealand.
The organisation is already working on its own trans-Tasman safety centre for fresh produce.
"Assuming that the proposed centre in New Zealand does include fresh produce, we would welcome strong trans-Tasman collaboration," its chief executive, Michael Worthington, said.