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Dalziel: NZFSA Conference

Hon Lianne Dalziel
Minister of Commerce, Minister for Food Safety,
Associate Minister of Justice, MP for Christchurch East

17 September 2008 Speech Notes


NZFSA Conference

Speech by Food Safety Minister Lianne Dalziel to NZFSA’s Annual Conference
Distinction Hotel, Rotorua
5pm

Although I have held this portfolio since November last year, this is the first industry-wide address I have made, which allows me to set out why the Food Safety portfolio is one of the most important roles I have been honoured to play in this government.

The timing of such an address could not be more appropriate with the tragedy we have seen unfolding in China over infant milk formula, serving as it does as an important reminder of the risks that are faced when things go wrong. I will come back to that, because there is another reason why today’s address is very timely.

Last year, as a result of the way the NZFSA responded to the A1/A2 milk issue, two reviews were initiated – one around the science, which quite properly sits with the European Food Standards Authority – the other was about the risk management approach adopted by NZFSA.

NZFSA had at the time recently been established as a stand-alone government department so it was time to look at how its role could be most appropriately defined. Dr Stuart Slorach was engaged to independently review NZFSA’s risk management framework, with the A1/A2 milk issue only one of the areas of focus. One of his recommendations was to propose a statutory mandate for NZFSA. He saw it as vital that consumers of New Zealand food – wherever they were in the world – clearly understood that our food safety legislation was for them and that NZFSA works to protect consumers by ensuring the food that they eat is safe.
While we don’t necessarily need mandates enshrined in legislation, being explicit about what we do and why we do it is important for communicating with consumers and industry alike. On Monday the government signed off on a fresh mandate for the NZFSA. It is available at this conference and will shortly be on the NZFSA’s website, as will the government’s response to the Slorach report. Just to remind you, this was how the previous mandate was expressed:

The New Zealand Food Safety Authority:
• Protects and promotes public health and safety; and
• Facilitates access to markets for New Zealand food and food related products

This has always been expressed by some as a dual mandate. Let me read the new mandate – it is very short and to the point; it states:

"The New Zealand Food Safety Authority's mandate is to protect consumers by providing an effective food regulatory programme covering food produced and consumed in New Zealand as well as imports and exports of food products."

Following on from this statement are a list of directions the NZFSA has to take into account but it ends as follows.

"In pursuing this mandate the overriding priority will always be to protect consumers."

This change is important to signal what I believe has always been the intention of NZFSA’s mandate. However it is fair to say that NZFSA has at times been in the firing line from various quarters, who have said that the obligation to protect and promote public health and safety as well as facilitating access to markets was a dual mandate and that it was not possible to fully serve the interests of both consumers and businesses at the same time. There was a concern that trade interests would subsume consumer interests.
I hope that New Zealand's response to the China infant milk tragedy makes it clear that it is the consumer interest that overrides all others.

However, that being said, if regulatory programmes are designed to ensure our food and food products are safe and suitable for New Zealand consumers, then the facilitation of trade is an obvious by-product in terms of the level of assurance we can give to our trade partners.

In order to provide further clarity for the Authority, the government has endorsed a set of directions around the mandate. These ask NZFSA in implementing the mandate:

• To engender high levels of trust and confidence in the New Zealand regulatory programme covering food and related products both domestically and internationally
• To base risk management decisions designed to protect consumers on sound science and an evidence base, applying precaution when faced with scientific uncertainty
• To apply the principles of openness and transparency
• To engage with stakeholders including consumers and industry sectors
• To minimise the costs of regulatory actions/interventions, recognising the economic benefits to domestic and export food businesses and the flow-on effects in consumer food prices
• To communicate food risks, hygienic practices and nutritional information as far as these are known and relevant to the food supply and consumer behaviour
• To recognise that there are New Zealand customs and practices that involve the non-commercial hunting, gathering and/or preparation of food where the public does not expect regulatory intervention
• To utilise any capacity to improve business opportunities for domestic and export focussed food industries
• To maintain the integrity of official assurances provided to importing countries’ governments, and
• To work at the multilateral and bilateral level to ensure neither international standards nor importing country standards pose unjustified ‘technical barriers’ to trade

But as I said before, in pursuing its mandate, the overriding priority for NZFSA remains to protect consumers of New Zealand food products – wherever they are in the world.

Food Bill
I'd like to turn now to a major project that has been the focus of much of NZFSA's effort over the past five years, beginning with the Domestic Food Review and now culminating in a new Food Bill. It is unfortunate that, with an election imminent, there is not enough time left on the legislative programme to get the Bill passed in this current Parliamentary session. My decision not to introduce the Bill right now does however avoid the prospect of the Bill becoming a target for political point scoring when we all know that food safety is far too important for that to be allowed to affect its success.

While a considerable amount of work has already been done, the delay gives us the opportunity to progress development of the necessary regulations and to prepare supporting guidelines and explanatory material. I understand the previous session has covered the mechanics of the new Bill in detail so I won't repeat it here but I will say that I am pleased at the prospect of this new legislative framework bringing New Zealand into line with international best practice.

Food-borne illness continues to be a huge issue in this country and we are determined to combat what are unacceptable statistics for a developed nation. Those statistics not only represent the obvious impact on individuals and their families, but also represent a major brake on workplace productivity and on the economy as a whole. The Food Bill is an excellent platform for reducing the effects of food borne illness on the health of our families and our economy.

When the new rules come into force, most commercial businesses selling or serving food will be required to operate Food Control Plans that document their food safety practices. These will help business operators ensure that their customers’ expectations of food safety are met in a way that is appropriate to their business.

It is encouraging to see that 58 out of 73 Territorial Authorities throughout the country - or nearly 80 percent – have chosen to join up to the voluntary implementation programme, which will see the option of early registration of the new Food Control Plans available to most food service businesses in New Zealand. This level of uptake by local government will ensure we don't lose the enthusiasm and momentum that has been built up over the past four years of policy development, and that the agreed changes get underway without further delay.

The feedback we are getting already shows that there’s a willingness by the food industry to pick up Food Control Plans in this ‘voluntary’ period. The current Plan for the Food Service and Catering sectors has been extensively trialled and has had considerable industry input, so we're confident it’s comprehensive and practical. Good businesses will already be doing most of what's required by the plans; but if their broader voluntary uptake of this risk management approach can help achieve a further reduction in New Zealand's level of food-borne illness then it's worth the effort.

Despite the positive feedback on the voluntary programme, there is a considerable amount of misinformation out there. With the implementation of the new provisions still months away, I am hearing stories of people who are running cake stalls and sausage sizzles, bring-a-plate or pot-luck events, or providing a few hot pies and chips required to sustain the liquor licence at their local sports clubs, being told that the authorities will come and inspect their kitchens and require them to have Food Control Plans. Some have been told they will have to have their kitchens at home inspected as well. This will not happen. Let me repeat the guidance provided to the NZFSA in its mandate, where it says that it must:
"recognise that there are New Zealand customs and practices that involve the non-commercial hunting, gathering and/or preparation of food where the public does not expect regulatory intervention."

NZFSA is all about risk management and we are not going to apply regulation where it is not required. That is not to say we won't act where we need to – obviously the tutin-infected honey sold by a hobbyist is a case in point.

But sausage sizzles, cake stalls, school and church fairs, bring-a-plate events and pot-luck dinners are all a quintessential part of Kiwi life and they will not be regulated by Food Control Plans. Not now, not ever, never. Can I be clearer? But because we are dedicated to helping everyone enjoy these time-honoured and iconic Kiwi activities, we will continue to give free guidance on safe food handling practices to anyone involved in these activities. And if that guidance is not followed, then there are no consequences, as the unregulated activities are not covered by the offence and penalty provisions in the Bill. If I sound frustrated it is because this nonsense, some of which has been generated to create the impression that clubs and businesses need to hire a consultant when they don't, has been the main reason why the Bill has not been introduced. I trust I have made it crystal clear that the Kiwi way of life as we know it is not about to come to an end.

Free guidance will also be provided to operators of Bed and Breakfast establishments, who will also be exempt from having Food Control Plans because they pose a low risk to their customers and single operators cater for a reasonably low number of people. This approach is a great example of the flexible and responsive approach the new regime will put in place. The ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach just isn’t feasible in our modern food economy. .

International standard setting
As well as its work in the development of a new domestic food regime, NZFSA continues to make a great contribution in the international food standard setting arena.
We see a strong, efficient and well resourced Codex as being critical to promoting the development of international food safety standards for protecting the health of consumers in an increasingly globalised world.

Through our leadership of the Codex Committee on Meat Hygiene and the Committee on Milk and Milk products we have actively promoted the development of international standards based soundly on science and risk assessment. The current work on establishing international guidelines for the control of Campylobacter and Salmonella in poultry meat is another example of New Zealand playing a leading role in the development of international food safety standards for a major food product. And may I use reference to the international standard to pay tribute to the industry association here in New Zealand – the Poultry Industry Association of NZ – which is helping us put this into practice with a Campylobacter Reduction Strategy which is already making real inroads into addressing this serious problem.

Market access
NZFSA’s market access work continues to pave the way for our food producers to sell their goods overseas. As you’re no doubt aware, New Zealand exports 80% of the food we produce – that's $21 billion worth of food and food-related products and it is imperative to our economy that our exporters have easy access to markets around the world. The integrity of our food safety systems is essential to securing such market access.

More than 100 countries receive government assurances from NZFSA that the animal, dairy, plant and seafood products they receive from New Zealand’s producers comply with agreed standards. Every year some 200,000 export certificates are issued to our exporters.

In addition to this crucial day-to-day certification work, NZFSA’s market access team has been increasingly involved in negotiating and implementing the government’s free trade agreement agenda.

As anyone involved in such negotiations can attest, it can take years to thrash out these arrangements, but they are key to providing our export industries with commercial certainty and a sustainable basis for business growth.

Recent achievements include the conclusion of the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) chapter of the China FTA and the near conclusion of both the AANZFTA (with Australia and the ASEAN countries) and the FTA with the Gulf Cooperation Council. NZFSA is also taking part in economic studies to advise the Government on the potential for FTAs with India, Korea and Japan.

This work is happening at the same time as we are seeing a shift in how countries assess the safety and suitability of the food and food-related products they allow across their borders. Where inspection and testing at the border used to be the principal method of assuring compliance, there is now far greater emphasis on equivalency where countries assess the programmes of trading partners for growing, harvesting, processing and transporting higher risk foods. This provides differential access for countries where we can conclude their systems are able to achieve the same objectives as our own.

Knowing that exporting countries’ programmes will provide equivalent outcomes to those expected of our domestic producers, gives mutual confidence. And it makes life easier for our exporters, as they don’t have to jump through additional hoops to meet the importing countries' requirements.

Conclusion
Which brings me back to what has happened in China and how New Zealand was able to respond in a principled way, putting the interests of consumers first. NZFSA was able to check customs records to assure NZ consumers that none of the infant formula had been imported here. Despite the confidence we had in those results, checks of infant formula were undertaken anyway. We checked with health officials to make sure there were no signs of the conditions that had struck the Chinese babies. We have offered full support to China to put the checks and balances in place to assist them going forward.

I heard a Federated Farmers representative on the radio this morning saying that New Zealand companies had to abide by a different set of rules and practices when operating overseas. I believe that this was to confirm their view that Fonterra acted appropriately under the circumstances as a shareholder without a controlling interest. Who knew what, when and how will provide the answer to that, however I reject the assertion that New Zealand companies should ever operate at lower standards overseas than they would in New Zealand simply because the rules are not so strict in other countries – that would be to accept that a New Zealand forestry company could hire workers in another country and send them into the forests without hard hats and steel capped boots, because the rules don't require them to do so. Our standards are there for good reason and this case proves the point.

There are those who will use this case to reiterate their view that New Zealand should have joined Australia in adopting country of origin labelling instead of opting out of that requirement. This case illustrates how ineffective country of origin labelling is.

The only product that we could find on an initial scan that might have had imported dairy content had come via Australia and the package said “made from domestic and imported ingredients” – and that’s the trouble with country of origin labelling on multiple ingredient products – there isn’t enough room to describe where every ingredient comes from – nor is there justification in the cost of changing the packaging every time imported ingredients are used because local ingredients are not available – for example because they are out of season.

The situation in China at the moment proves that the only real protection against problems in the food supply is to put rigorous controls in place every step of the way – from farm to fork, from paddock to plate, from grass to glass.

Which brings me back to my point that we have such rigorous standards in place in New Zealand and we must insist on those standards being adopted around the world.

Nobody deserves less. The lesson we must learn from this experience is that we haven’t put these rules in place to protect our trade interests or our reputation as a nation; they are by-products of our primary interest in the health and well-being of consumers of our food.

We must insist that these practices that provide New Zealand consumers with the level of assurances we can offer are international standards and accepted everywhere, not as a compliance cost to business, but as an obligation we owe to everyone.

I wish you all the best for the rest of the conference. Thank you.


ENDS

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