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Food Safety Forum - Jim Anderton Speech

Hon Jim Anderton
28 March 2001 Speech Notes

Food Safety Forum


Opening Address
2nd Food Safety Forum

Turnbull House
Wellington


It's my pleasure to be here to make opening remarks at this forum as the Acting Minister of Consumer Affairs.

This is an office I have only held for a matter of a few weeks.

I am grateful that it coincides with an opportunity to talk at such an important event.

I am under no illusions about the importance of food safety.

It is almost frightening to recognise that the safety of food has become as potent an issue for consumers around the world as any issue of safety.

Across town today at Te Papa, my colleague the Minister of Disarmament Matt Robson is hosting an international disarmament conference.

Just as the global arms race is a pressing international issue, so too is food safety around the globe today.

One only has to survey the food crises affecting Europe.

Europe has been dominated in recent times by controversies and disasters over foot and mouth disease, and Mad Cow disease -- to name but two.

There is on-going and rising international awareness of Genetic Engineering issues.

There is rising debate over the use of chemicals in food production.

These issues are having a monumental effect on the eating habits of Europe.

But issues about food are far from exclusive to Europe.

They are truly global.

I was in Japan late last year. I met with a major food producing company that has expanded its production facilities in New Zealand.

They told me they brought all of their Asian region production to New Zealand because this is where the highest quality food is grown and processed.

But they told me that they faced a genuine hurdle in trying to convince Japanese consumers about the quality of New Zealand-produced food.

The Japanese consumer demands the very highest standards in food processing and presentation.

The point is that issues about food safety are international.

They have an enormous impact.

The crisis in Europe at the moment is obviously affecting the livelihood of producers and distributors of food.

Those effects are immense in themselves.

But the crises will have a much wider impact even than that.

There will be an immense on-going effect on economic, political and cultural life in Europe.

Consumers are less trusting of scientists.

They are less trusting of governments.

They are less trusting of business.

Like any seismic shift in public attitudes, there are good and bad consequences from those changes.

Here in New Zealand we are not immune from the effects.

We have to be alert to the causes of the catastrophes Europe has witnessed.

We have to be aware of the positive things New Zealand does – the things that have to date shielded us from a similar disaster.

We also have to be careful to record where we have simply been lucky.

We have to make plans for doing business in an environment where consumer attitudes towards food are changing.

Where consumer suspicions about food production are heightened.

In my view these are opportunities for New Zealand – not obstacles.

We can expect consumers to become increasingly aware of the way food is produced.

We can expect consumers to be increasingly wary of official assurances.

New Zealand has a choice.

We can be ahead of consumer concerns and ensure we provide the food products and services that consumers demand.

Or we can be crushed by those demands.

If we are going to seize the opportunities then it is vital that we adopt a consumers' perspective.

The days are gone when production processes could determine business strategies.

The only strategy that stands a chance of being successful is a consumer-driven strategy.

That is not only good business – it is better for people. It is better for our health. It is more democratic.

Three government departments have worked together to bring about these food safety forums - MAF, Health and Consumer Affairs.

This forum is the second of three, following one last September.

The aim of the series is to enhance consumer representation in food policy decisions.

In particular the challenge is to bring key consumer concerns and priorities to the forum and to champion the views of the consumer.

Surely that is what any business today is about.

Like it or not, the views of consumers are paramount today.

You have some difficult questions to answer at this forum.

Questions such as what is the appropriate level of protection for New Zealand food? What is 'safe enough'?

Whatever answers your discussions lead you to, they have to be the answers that consumers are comfortable with.

That is why it is so crucial to have consumer representation in decision-making about food policy.

The days are over, if they ever really were acceptable, when officials or business representatives could expect to issue bland assurances.

The days are over when consumers were told that they would just have to put up with the so-called 'efficiencies' that producers wanted to achieve.

Consumer representatives made this clear at the last forum.

They said that consumers want their interests represented and their views heard when food safety policy is being formulated.

They want transparent decision making.

They want to be informed.

They don't want to believe that their interests are being outweighed by bigger and more powerful interests.

Consumers want their interests to be paramount.

They want enough information to make choices about their food.

New Zealand and Australia are currently co-operating on a GE food labelling regime.

It's an example of the work that can be done to ensure consumer interests are paramount.

The labelling regime will ensure that consumers can decide for themselves whether they want to consume GE products.

There is on-going debate over further initiatives that can be taken to meet consumer concerns over food safety.

A persuasive article by a former Heinz-Wattie chief executive in the New Zealand Herald only yesterday argued for the use of a New Zealand Eco-label.

Food manufacturers, exporters and retailers will all have good ideas.

It is essential that the right mechanisms are put in place for these ideas to be considered.

I don't want to anticipate the outcome of your discussions about the best mechanisms.

But it is important to stress that the government will be looking to the interests of consumers when it analyses its role.

Wearing my other hat, as Minister for Economic Development I have travelled to thirty different regions of New Zealand in the past twelve months.

I've met with a wide variety of businesses and community groups.

I have been impressed with the willingness of New Zealanders to face challenges and to work in partnership to resolve them.

We are a small country.

We have to work in partnership with each other if we are to be successful in gaining our rightful place as the best small country in the world.

I am confident that forums like this will be successful because they are an example of partnership: Of coming together to examine what is held in common and to set priorities for the future.

I wish you well in your discussions today and I look forward to considering the outcome of your deliberations.

…Ends.

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