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Annette King Address Food Safety Conference

Annette King Address to the New Zealand Food Safety Authority Conference

I am delighted to be speaking at the first New Zealand Food Safety Authority Conference, and there could be no better theme for the conference than building and maintaining confidence in New Zealand food.

That, of course, is the basis on which we set up the New Zealand Food Safety Authority in the first place.

It seems just a short time ago that we were in Auckland to launch the Authority. In the intervening nine months, the fledgling organisation has started to make a real difference.

The Government established the NZFSA in July 2002 with two key objectives: To protect and promote public health and safety, and To facilitate access to markets for New Zealand food and food related products.

If we can be self-congratulatory for a moment, in New Zealand food production is something we have traditionally done well.

The challenge the Government laid down for Andrew McKenzie and the NZFSA team was to ensure that the food we produce meets the standards our consumers demand, and that our export products continue to be regarded among the world’s safest and best.

At this first conference, a report card is timely and I will be giving one at the conclusion of this speech.

There were a number of compelling reasons for establishing the Authority.

Over the past ten years New Zealand has experienced increasing rates of food-borne illness.

In the seven years from 1990 to 1997 the reported incidence of food-borne illness almost doubled, and the trend since has continued upwards.

As a Wellington MP, it wasn’t very pleasant to hear Wellington increasingly referred to as the Campylo capital of the world.

In a country where we have access to an abundance of fresh good food, clearly something needed to be done to better protect New Zealand consumers.

Looking out to the future, it was increasingly clear that this upward trend for food-borne illness was going to continue. Our whole approach to eating and to food production was changing.

Just think about some of those changes. We were eating out more. There were more pre-prepared foods being sold. We were eating more foods of animal origin. And we were eating food from a much wider range of sources, and eating them in quite different ways from the traditional meat and three veg of the past.

At the same time, methods of producing food were changing. From the farm to the point of retail sale, new ways of doing things are clearly going to change our food patterns dramatically.

One of the really exciting things happening in New Zealand is that we are increasingly seeing a diversity of people from different cultural backgrounds settling here. They bring with them new and different foods and ways of eating.

Food distribution chains have also been growing. Most of us no longer pick fresh vegetables from our gardens or purchase them from the local market garden. Instead we shop in supermarkets where products we buy may come from Timaru, Kerikeri, Cairns or South America. Shipping food long distances brings its own set of problems.

And we know that new food-related bacterial species are emerging around the world. No doubt, new pathogenic strains will continue to develop in the future.

Concerns about these trends were backed by increased consumer anxiety about exactly what was in the food they were eating.

For example there was increased concern about chemicals in food, and the development and introduction of new and novel foods was clearly causing concern for consumers everywhere.

And, as you will hear later in the Conference, the looming possibility of other more insidious threats meant the Government needed to act.

We can’t forget the role food plays in another of our increasingly important industries - tourism.

Visitors to New Zealand no longer only come here to see our mountains, and our wonderful natural scenery. Increasingly a visit to New Zealand is about sophisticated restaurants, fine wine and superb food.

And spending time sampling local food and wine in one of our wonderful wine regions shouldn’t mean taking a chance on your health.

Looking after New Zealand consumers was a high priority when establishing the NZFSA. But protecting our food export trade and the reputation that underpins that trade was of equal importance.

Food is New Zealand’s biggest earner. The assurance that we give other governments, that food from New Zealand meets their requirements, must be credible and be able to be trusted.

All of you here – whether farmers, regulators, producers, processors, retailers or consumers – have a part to play in ensuring this key sector in our economy succeeds.

With so much at stake, we have high expectations of our food industry. The Government also needed to respond to these expectations, which is why we set up the NZFSA.

Food safety authorities are being established in many countries around the world. In the UK, Ireland, Denmark and the European Union, food safety authorities are looking after the interests of consumers. In the United States, consumer pressure is growing for a single agency to take responsibility for food. I know from discussions at the recent Codex Meat and Poultry hygiene meeting with US consumer representatives that our single agency is something they covet.

New Zealand is at the forefront of the movement and considering the importance of food to the health of our consumers, and our economy, having our own centre of risk management excellence for food has been a priority.

Over the past nine months since the Authority began, international trade relationships have been enhanced and agreements have been reached with controlling authorities and countries from the Middle East, the Americas, Asia, Europe and around the Pacific.

These relationships facilitate market access and allow the cost-effective export of ever increasing ranges of products, from organic fruit and vegetables to innovative and highly processed dairy products.

Besides developing these bilateral relationships, the Authority has also undertaken extensive work to ensure that the rules under which international trade in food takes place are sensible and reflect the New Zealand approach to food safety.

It is now time to look at some of the key priorities for the NZFSA over the next three to five years.

Work has begun on reviewing the imported foods programme. We all enjoy the variety of food from all over the world in our supermarkets. But regardless of where it comes from, food sold in New Zealand must be safe. Consultation is taking place on the terms of reference for the review.

A new total diet survey will commence shortly. It is part of a comprehensive science strategy. We have limited resources, so a strategy to get the best value from our research dollars is essential.

There is also an extensive raft of legislation ahead, with work on the Winemakers Bill in particular.

And the relationship between Food Standards Australia and New Zealand and the NZFSA is being optimised for the benefit of New Zealand consumers and producers.

Most importantly, later this morning Andrew will outline the thinking so far on an extensive review of the whole New Zealand food programme.

This review will certainly result in comprehensive changes to the way we produce food for sale in New Zealand, with the aim of improving food safety for all consumers, and at the same time minimising regulatory compliance costs.

At this stage the thinking has not gone much past the stage of “drawing on the back of an envelope”, so we are all involved at a very early point in the process, long before firm decisions are made.

As Minister for Food Safety, I have outlined a number of requirements that must come out of the review. The programme must deliver improvements for consumers. It must ensure clear lines of accountability and it must have the support of those involved.

So let’s get back to that report card.

Maybe the Authority has not quite got an “A” yet for having achieved everything, and maybe there’s still a long way to go to get to where we want to be, but the Authority definitely deserves an “A” for the ambitions it has for food safety in New Zealand.

I wish you all a very successful Conference. Thank you very much for inviting me to be part of it.

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