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Meat NZ AGM, Rotorua - Sutton Speech

Hon Jim Sutton Speech Notes

Meat NZ AGM, Rotorua

Chairman John Acland, chief executive Neil Taylor, ladies and gentlemen: I am delighted to be here at your conference today, John Acland's swansong.

I've known John a long time, and I think the country owes him a great debt of thanks for all the work he has done in his many years of public life. I'd like to take a moment now to thank John and Rosemary for their contribution to the benefit of the country.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

The past few months have been an exceptionally busy one for meat producers. The outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain four weeks ago has set off a firestorm of fear amongst meat consumers, particularly coming after the BSE outbreak.

We've had to tackle the misrepresentation of our health status - not just once, or twice, but four times! More than any country should have to bear.

I want to thank Meat NZ and the Meat Industry Association for working with Government in getting a fast and appropriate response from the Germans after their misleading pamphlet. We may not have agreed over the cause of the mistakes, but we were united in getting them addressed.

Equally, the united front between Government and industry on the CNN, Time magazine, and Meat International magazine errors has also meant that those organisations did correct their mistakes.

Media mistakes happen from time to time, as all of us who deal with journalists know. But these latest mistakes have been potentially damaging in extreme to our trade. Anecdotally, I have heard of concerns in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East - yes, a fair swathe of the globe.

I have trips planned to the United States and Europe planned in the next couple of months. I can see a promotion of New Zealand's animal health status may be necessary.

The combined animal welfare and food safety scares have damaged sales of red meat worldwide, but particularly in Europe. European Commission officials have told me that beef consumption in Germany had dropped about 60 per cent from "normal", reflecting consumers' reaction to events.

If there is any silver lining in this sorry saga in Europe, it is that people there are starting to have a fundamental re-think about the whole structure of food production in Europe and about future directions for the Common Agriculture Policy.

Consumers are more and more concerned about the safety of the food they and their families are eating. They are demanding changes. Some Government ministers in Europe are losing their jobs. In Germany, for example, they no longer have a minister of agriculture, but a minister of consumer protection, food safety, and agriculture - Renate Kuenast. Note that agriculture is last, not first in the title.

Ms Kuenast has been vocal in her expressions of concern about "industrialised agriculture", and the need to have more regard for organic farming approaches to food production. While there are practical limits to the rate of change that are possible, there are clearly new directions emerging for European agriculture. I think this cultural change can only be beneficial for New Zealand farmers - provided, that is - that we keep firmly in mind the old adage about the customer always being right. They always are!

Food scares overseas are not the only problem facing the meat industry, though. Your industry, like other land-based industries in New Zealand, are under threat - often from our own fellow citizens.

Yesterday, I became the minister of biosecurity. Having done the job on a temporary basis for the past few weeks, I have been learning a lot about what our border controls are really like.

On Sunday, I spent four hours at Auckland airport.

The MAF Quarantine staff there do an incredible job at dealing with people coming into our country and intercepting smuggled products. The figures are horrific.

While I was there, exotic fruit possibly carrying live fruit fly and tree cones potentially carrying diseases were intercepted and confiscated.

Lat year, 8.5 tonnes of meat and poultry products were taken off passengers. A third of that was undeclared. Two thirds of it came from countries with foot and mouth disease.

On top of that, there were 168 seizures of live animals, including dogs and live eggs. In one case, a pet rat escaped on the plane, which had to be stripped and fumigated.

And believe it or not, despite all our experience in the past year with the varroa bee mite, people are still trying to smuggle in queen bees.

1.8 tonnes of seed was confiscated in 4500 seizures. Nursery stock - about 12 thousand units - were confiscated in 734 seizures. Another 16 tonnes of potential fruit fly host material has been taken from passengers.

All that is coming in with passengers. Tonnes more material is seized from screening of the mail system. We are the only country in the world to screen 100 per cent of inward mail.

MAF Quarantine staff have a difficult job. They are often dealing with people from other cultures, whose grasp on the English language may not be a secure one. Worse are the passengers who come off planes intoxicated. MAF Quarantine staff are Kiwi Host accredited and trained to deal with difficult people.

They all know the critical importance of their work. I am certain they are carrying out their duties to the best of their abilities.

You should know that we are screening 38 per cent more passengers than a year ago; that to cope with the increase in high-risk flights when Britain got foot and mouth disease, all leave was cancelled; all off-site training was cancelled; all development work was cancelled as all hands pitched in to ensure our quarantine standards were kept up.

The new funding package Cabinet gave me after a week in the job will allow quarantine staff numbers to increase 25 per cent, and make New Zealand the only country to x-ray and screen with detector dogs 100 per cent of incoming passengers and baggage.

But for all the furore about foot and mouth disease, it is not the only threat to our country.

Our quarantine rules are there for a reason. We don't want these pests, diseases, and other nasties to make it here.

It requires all of us to work together. We all as individuals make a difference. That delicious salami or strip of jerky your teenager might think of bringing in after an interesting trip overseas could have a devastating effect on our economy.

This is a long-term issue. Biosecurity and the importance of border control measures will not become less important when - or if - Britain gets its foot and mouth disease outbreak under control. We have lived with foot and mouth as a threat for a long time, from trading partners a lot closer than Britain. It is not the only disease in the world. There are others as bad, and there are pests as bad.

We must all be eternally vigilant.

Back home, your industry is going through some restructuring. And there are a lot of issues associated with that.

I expect I will continue to be informed of all the debate that goes on. I would just say it is important that farmers get value for the Meat Board levies they pay. This means that there must be a good deal of confidence that the benefits will outweigh the costs before a project or programme is undertaken.

Farmers seem to say they want more say in what Board expenditure they finance and hence the rates of levy they pay. This may mean the Board providing farmers with detailed budgets showing what amounts are proposed to be spent and for what purposes.

Of course, a fine judgement is required here. Government by referendum is not a recipe for success. But the pendulum has clearly swung away from the other end of the spectrum where, once established in office, all that was expected of board members by way of democratic participation was a couple of gentlemanly chats with a well-nourished Electoral Committee a couple of times a year.

Board activities should be continually under review. No matter what farmers' views are on the McKinsey and Company report on the wool industry and the Wool Board, it should be acknowledged that McKinsey raised quite a number of issues that needed to be addressed. I know that Meat NZ has been pro-active in looking at itself in a similar vein, and also in considering the possibility of consolidating the public good activities of the boards in a single structure.

The way these decisions are handled over the next year will have an enduring impact on New Zealand's meat and fibre sector. I know that during the long financial winter farming endured, many farmers went into survival mode, and concentrated on minimising expenditure. Now that the revitalising warmth of spring seems to be with us, I would urge a balancing consideration. Do we not also run the risk of betraying our future, by not being bold and pro-active enough- Spending less is not the only way of balancing the books. Determining to increase income is more faithful to the Kiwi tradition.

I wish you well for the rest of your conference.

Thank you.

Office of Hon Jim Sutton

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