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Clark: Opening Of Food Safety Authority Conference

Embargoed until 9.00am
Wednesday 1 November 2006


Rt Hon Helen Clark
Prime Minister


Opening address to the
New Zealand Food Safety Authority
Conference


Heritage Hotel, Auckland

9.00am

Wednesday 1 November, 2006

The theme for this conference is ‘Prospering with Safe Food’. Our government acknowledges food safety as an issue of critical importance for the health of all New Zealanders, and for the prosperity of an immensely significant sector in the New Zealand economy.

When Labour came into government in 1999, there was a lack of consistency in regulation across the food sector. There was also increasing consumer concern about domestic food safety, and there was a high incidence of food borne illness in New Zealand.

In 2002, in response to these concerns, the government established the New Zealand Food Safety Authority. We were convinced that the sector warranted a dedicated agency to protect consumers and to maintain their confidence in New Zealand’s position as a trusted food supplier.

One of the key tasks undertaken by the Food Safety Authority since its establishment has been the review of New Zealand’s food regulatory regime. The existing system had not been thoroughly reviewed for over thirty years.

Last month, the Cabinet approved a major package of recommendations arising from the Domestic Food Review. A new Food Act will lead to the updating and streamlining of our food laws to accommodate rapidly shifting consumer behaviour and expectations, changing food production and distribution systems, and new and emerging pathogens and other risks. The Minister for Food Safety, Hon Annette King, will address you on the planned changes later today.

Unfortunately our present food safety system has not stemmed the rise in the number of reported foodborne illnesses. There are also inequities in the way the food industry is regulated across the country, and there is a lack of clarity in the roles of the regulators involved, such as the Food Safety Authority, public health units, and local authorities.

The proposed new approach for our food regulatory system sets out to ensure that our vital food sector can deal adequately with the significant growth expected over the next twenty years. A key aim will be to make food operators responsible for providing safe and suitable food. We do wish to keep compliance costs as low as is consistent with getting good results. A five year transfer into the new system is proposed.

The majority of food businesses are small, less complex operations, such as cafés, restaurants, and corner dairies. The Food Safety Authority will develop and make available free of charge, off-the-peg templates and guidance material for these types of businesses to aid their food safety management.

Of course, the organisms which cause foodborne illnesses can occur at many points in the farm-to-fork continuum, including in the private home. People and organisations at every step in the chain have a part to play to ensure the safety of food. But in a country like ours where the food sector is so important, it is crucial that consumers have confidence in the food they buy at the time of purchase.

We want the new regime to give the public increased confidence in the food system through a range of public sanction and compliance tools. They will range from positive endorsement, such as through food safety awards, incentive schemes, and performance-based verification, to a national grading programme and the publication of businesses’ grading results, public apologies, and prohibition notices.

One cannot overstate the vital role which food plays in the New Zealand economy:

- the food sector exports $18 billion of food products – just over half New Zealand’s entire export earnings.

- it contributes $31 billion (or 23 per cent) of gross domestic product.

- it includes around 30,000 food businesses – from small takeaway outlets to multi-million dollar export giants.

- it directly or indirectly employs around 590,000 New Zealanders.

The importance of the overall food and beverage sector to our export performance led government to set up a taskforce with industry representatives to consider smart strategies for the future. We are presently considering our response to the taskforce’s recommendations.

New Zealand’s food sector has a reputation for high quality, safe animal and plant products. We have high standards of labelling, a high standard of quality management, consistently accurate and honest certification, and freedom from many serious diseases and pests.

From these attributes has come New Zealand’s reputation for competence, integrity, and leadership which has seen New Zealand become a world leader in regulatory systems in general.

The New Zealand Food Safety Authority has picked up and built on that reputation, and as a result New Zealand can boast a strong involvement in international trade forums. We chair the key Codex Committees on Meat Hygiene and Milk and Milk Products, and we participate in several others, including food hygiene, food additives, pesticide residues, food labelling, residues of veterinary drugs and methods for analysis and sampling.

This leadership is helping New Zealand play a key role in shaping the international standards which serve as a framework for our global trade.

Improved trade access and enhanced competition have been key drivers in the development of New Zealand’s domestic food sector too. The New Zealand/European Union Veterinary Agreement, for example, is saving New Zealand food producers millions of dollars in compliance costs. The past decade has seen substantial change in this area, yet growth and productivity increases have been consistently above the average for the whole economy.

The food industry is a vital, thriving and dynamic industry for New Zealand. The regulatory and risk management issues you will consider at this conference will make a difference to protecting consumers, facilitating trade, and supporting business growth for our food producers, processors, exporters, retailers, and auxiliary services over the next few years.

I hope the conference will provide you with new insights into just how you can play your part and take advantage of the opportunities the next few years will present for the food sector.

The conference programme suggests that you have a most interesting and challenging two days ahead of you. I wish you well, and hope you will benefit from this opportunity to learn and share ideas and information which is vital for the future of our food industry.

Thank you.


ENDS

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