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King: New Zealand Food Safety Authority conference

Wed, 29 Sep 2004

New Zealand Food Safety Authority conference

Minister for Food Safety Annette King opened the New Zealand Food Safety Authority conference in Wellington, saying the food and beverage sector has gone from strength to strength.

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This second New Zealand Food Safety Authority conference could not have a better theme than the one you have chosen.

When this Government took the initiative of establishing the authority in 2002, it did so as a pro-active measure to safeguard and enhance New Zealand's reputation, and this year's theme, Managing Food Risks, is all about being pro-active.

In the 18 months since the last conference, the New Zealand food and beverage sector has gone from strength to strength, and this conference is an ideal chance for the NZFSA to discuss current programmes, and for all of you to work through issues together.

Statistics tell us just how important the food industry is to New Zealand:

· Total exports of food and beverage have more than doubled over the past 15 years and were worth nearly $14 billion in the year to March 2004. · Nearly 63,000 people, or more than 13 per cent of the work force, is employed in the sector, and · It has a total share of GDP of nearly 10.5 per cent.

The sector has experienced much change over the past decade, yet growth and productivity have been consistently above the average for the whole economy. It has responded remarkably to deregulation, subsidy removal, enhanced competition and improved trade access.

The food sector is a vital, thriving and dynamic part of our economy, and the regulatory and risk management issues you will consider will make a difference to protecting consumers, facilitating trade and supporting growth for food producers, processors, exporters, retailers and other services over the next few years. As sector stakeholders, you all have significant roles to play, and they will evolve as the NZFSA reviews programmes that ensure consumers are protected and trade and commerce are facilitated. I hope this conference gives you insights into just how you can play your part and take advantage of opportunities over the next few years.

The food sector certainly belongs to a changing world. Consumers have a changing relationship with food; industry needs and expectations are shifting; the risks keep altering, and so do the requirements of our international trading partners; and we must ensure we use sound science to design food regulatory programmes

Consumers of New Zealand food - no matter where in the world they may be - are demanding more and more of that food. Some significant trends are being seen in consumer expectations, and part of this conference's brief is ensuring we understand these, and are ready to manage the challenges these trends will inevitably present.

Many of our consumers seek not just healthy, safe, nutritious food, but they want it to be convenient, easily prepared and often ready to take home and serve. They also want sound, reliable information about their food; they want seasonal produce available all year round, and they like novelty and new food ideas. At the same time, they have an emotional identity with locally produced food and familiar brands!

Many consumers now also expect their food to be produced in an environmentally sound and sustainable manner and animal welfare concerns affect the food choices some consumers make.

Increasingly, affluent consumers are urban dwellers, divorced from the land and unconnected to farming, and many, especially in parts of Europe, see farming as landscaping. The harsh realities of farming can be horrifying for many. They are often uninformed on food production, but want sophisticated food risk management systems.

Above all, they are cost conscious and buy on price. This imperative can sometimes be at direct odds with consumer calls for tougher regulations. We all have to try to balance cost with the level of risk, actual and perceived. The food industry, consumers and the Government need to work together to achieve this balance.

The regulators in our international trading partners must consider these increasing consumer concerns, and, as well, food risks we wouldn't have imagined even five years ago must be managed. Food tampering, food security and bio-terrorism have sadly become potential risks that must be factored into food safety programmes.

To meet all these demands and continue as New Zealand's leading industry, our food producers, processors and sellers want a regulatory programme that is consistent, practical, flexible, and allows them to be innovative and manage risks cost-effectively. Compliance costs must be minimised, consistent with Government policy, including the need for food to be safe and suitable. To this end, NZFSA has two major reviews in progress.

The first is the Imported Foods Review. Despite New Zealand's substantial food production and exports, we import about 20 per cent of our food by value, and that proportion is increasing. NZFSA has been developing this review since it became the responsible authority.

This is the first significant review of the rules for imported foods since 1997, and since that time, there have been significant changes in the pattern of New Zealanders' importation and consumption of food.

The review has provided an opportunity for importers, distributors, consumers and regulators of imported foods to make submissions on the regulatory framework and the administrative processes used to meet New Zealanders' food safety expectations.

The discussion paper circulated in July proposed that economic efficiency should be one of the decisive factors for choosing between options proposed for changes to the imported foods regime. This recognized that regulatory attention must be directed to those interventions likely to be effective in reducing illness and other costs of unsafe foods. It also recognized absolute safety was not possible, and the costs of attempting to achieve this would be prohibitive.

Submissions are now being considered, and the review team will make final recommendations to NZFSA in November. An independent review team undertook the review, but NZFSA will be responsible for recommendations made to the Government and for developing discussion documents for any legislative changes that may follow.

The second review is a significant long-term project covering the entire domestic food regulatory programme. This review and implementation of recommendations will probably take at least five years. The aim is to put in place a food regulatory programme across all sectors of our domestic food industry to promote and deliver safe and suitable food in New Zealand.

The key objectives are to reduce significantly the incidence of food-borne illness, and to provide a coherent food regulatory programme that smoothes interfaces among various pieces of food legislation.

When the Government set up NZFSA, it anticipated a major project to review, update and align food legislation designed to manage risks from farm and boat to plate would be necessary. It is exciting to see this underway, and I urge you all to consider the discussion papers released last week and ensure you make submissions.

Any programme resulting from the review will require the food sector to be responsible for producing safe, suitable food. The Government cannot stand over every food producer to ensure "it's done right", but the proposed implementation of the regulatory model across all food producers is designed to ensure standards are consistently met.

Other projects that will impact on our consumers include labeling and composition issues around dietary supplements and food standards, such as folate fortification and ongoing work in the areas of iodine in food and vitamin D. NZFSA is working with the Health Ministry and Food Standards Australia New Zealand in these areas. There are also some major areas of development that FSANZ is putting before New Zealand stakeholders, the most significant relating to health claims.

The Food Standards Code that New Zealand and Australia share continues to be a significant factor in the food system for all in the sector. FSANZ maintains, reviews and develops this code. It is good to see such collaboration between our two countries, and to be able to welcome here FSANZ board chair Rob Knowles and CEO Graham Peachey, New South Wales Food Safety Authority CEO George Davey and Safefood Queensland CEO Barbara Wilson.

I am also pleased to see the work being done to communicate with consumers on risk issues and to see that such communication, essential for managing risks in food, features prominently on the conference agenda. I welcome Dr Doug Powell from the University of Guelph. He is an acknowledged food risk communication expert, and his experience in this field will be of great interest to us all.

This year, the Total Diet Survey has been a key piece of work and, in addition to the actual science programme, NZFSA has put much effort into communicating with consumers about just what the results mean.

We know, anecdotally and from the UMR survey undertaken last year by NZFSA, that people are concerned about chemical residues in their food. The Total Diet Survey provides us with a snapshot of what is actually happening in our diet and we have been very pleased with what has been found in the first three quarter periods. New Zealand food -- with a couple of exceptions where problems were identified and action taken -- has a record any country would be proud of.

At the same time as the second quarter results were released, NZFSA also released the results of the routine monitoring undertaken in the animal products and dairy areas. Together the more than 120,000 results painted a picture of an extremely safe food supply.

Effort has been made to communicate these results to consumers, to explain what they mean and to put them into context to help reassure New Zealanders about what is in their food, and to help them to understand where the real risks lie. It is also hoped this information will help them sift through some of the perceptions and misinformation they have faced from many quarters over recent years.

The conference will also examine the NZFSA science programme and its contribution to knowledge underpinning the regulatory programme.

All stakeholders in the food sector are demanding that regulatory controls, either our own or those of countries that import our food, are scientifically justified, and are proportional to any risks to human health. NZFSA, and external institutions such as ESR contracted to provide scientific inputs, are increasingly building risk assessment capacity to meet such demands. NZFSA has already produced world-class risk assessments that contribute to a safer global food supply.

An important topic tomorrow will involve examining "what happens when things go wrong". Unfortunately, when you are dealing with the food supply of a whole country, from time to time things do go wrong. Food is produced biologically, is shipped all over the globe and faces many threats. We can never guarantee 100 per cent safety.

The important thing is that when things go wrong, systems are in place to act rapidly, competently and effectively. This year we have had issues such as the lead-in-cornflour saga and a number of routine recalls, and I have been pleased to see the cooperation shown by the food industry in issuing these recalls. I want to thank you for the role you all play in such cooperation.

While this year's issues and recalls were handled effectively, lessons can always be learned, and your discussions on this topic will help ensure we continually improve the way these are handled.

The food trade is so important to our economy that we need to know what is happening internationally and what emerging issues face us. That is why I am so happy to welcome Dr Peter Embarak, from the World Health Organisation, who will talk tomorrow about these issues.

NZFSA works closely with MAF Policy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and other government departments on SPS issues and providing an overarching framework for our international trade. This includes ongoing work to improve the world trading environment for food in Codex Alimentarius Commission and more recently in OIE, the international animal health standard setters.

As well as contributing to a safer global food supply, NZFSA takes part in such international standard-setting bodies work to ensure the New Zealand way of doing things is protected. Particularly important is the work of the Codex milk and meat committees that New Zealand chairs, with excellent progress being made earlier this year in both.

Bilateral programmes with key trading partners have always been important, but over the next two or three years the potential for new free trade agreements with a number of countries will see major opportunities for exporters - and major work programmes for NZFSA!

Thank you for inviting me to join you today. The conference provides a challenging and most interesting two days, and you will all have an opportunity to share ideas and information that will be vital for the future of this most important sector. I wish you all well.

ENDS

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