Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

The main reason behind the amalgamation of NZFSA (New Zealand Food Safety Authority) after several years of semi or complete independence from MAF is the perceived need for a single focus biosecurity system which is closely aligned with the authority responsible for all aspects of food safety. There is no doubt also an opportunity to save money by reducing any duplication of resources.

According to Andrew McKenzie who has led NZFSA since its creation in 2001, it was perhaps a mistake to separate administration of the Biosecurity Act from the Animal Products Act which occurred in 1999 when MAF separated the Regulatory Authority into biosecurity and food assurance. In 1998 the Verification Agency had been established within MAF to take responsibility for audit and verification of export food production premises, before the formation of NZFSA, while meat inspection was transferred to a State Owned Enterprise, Asure.

However after the inevitable teething problems and cost recovery negotiations with the meat industry, this whole system settled down very well to deliver respected, world class food products to international markets. According to Tim Ritchie of the MIA, the meat industry has been very satisfied with NZFSA’s science based approach to advocacy on trade access issues, demonstrating a good understanding of industry concerns.

While he agrees a consistent approach to biosecurity risk assessment and product verification is conceptually logical, his key concerns are for the new structure to continue its focus on the provision of services to the industry on a transparent cost recovery basis and trade access, not be diverted by side issues. Ritchie is cautiously optimistic the new structure will have no adverse impact, provided there is continuity of leadership and management by people who understand the meat industry’s issues, but as he says, “the devil’s in the detail”.

Tony Henning, Auckland Meat Processors’ recently retired Technical Manager and previously a vet with NZFSA, agrees the change will be positive, if the same outcomes can be delivered at a lower cost, although he notes it’s not the way the rest of the world is going. Separate management of food safety is still the norm overseas. He also holds the view quality and continuity of management is critical to the success of the realignment of biosecurity and food safety. For Henning the burning issue is maintenance of the same market access outcomes, while protecting the New Zealand consumer from animal and plant disease incursions.

It’s worth noting the good work NZFSA has done on the domestic front, since inheriting responsibility for New Zealand’s retail food businesses and small food processors from the Ministry of Health which had a very patchy record for carrying out audits. But the global economic downturn caused the domestic food review to be shelved which was intended to get control of food safety in an estimated over 30,000 small food outlets.

The statement by the Ministers of Agriculture and Food Safety when announcing the reintegration last month was bullish about the new Ministry which would “span the full primary industries value chain from producer to consumer”, while more closely aligning key functions “supporting the Government’s economic growth goals, including sector performance, sustainable development and trade facilitation”. The Minister of Food Safety, Kate Wilkinson, went on to say how it was critical for consumers both here and overseas to have confidence in the integrity of our products and regulatory processes and, therefore, it made sense to have “a single competent authority spanning imports and exports of animal and plant products and responding to public, animal and plant health biosecurity events”.

So far, so good, but there are always risks associated with change and, despite the high sounding benefits stated by the Ministers, there’s a danger here of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The biggest risk was always going to be the change of leadership which will occur on 1 July, the date the newly combined ministry comes into being, with the retirement of Andrew McKenzie. He has led the country’s veterinary service to the meat and broader food industry for many years, long before the formation of NZFSA, and has been highly successful in building the confidence of regulatory authorities in the New Zealand food industry. At the same time he has ensured processors were fully aware of the changing standards they would have to meet to preserve trade access. It will be critical to ensure continuity of his management philosophy in whoever succeeds him.

If the transition goes according to plan, the single Controlling Authority is expected to achieve a number of somewhat nebulous benefits, arising from a standardised regulatory approach to all elements of biosecurity and food safety across imports and exports and products destined for domestic and export economies. Much is made of the potential advantages of this single, whole-of-system approach and these may well prove to be the result of the change. But I hope the transition programme makes sure it retains and builds on the strengths of NZFSA and doesn’t lose them in the pursuit of political ideology.

MAF and NZFSA both have a strong reputation with international regulatory authorities, but this depends on the quality of the people dealing with the authorities and the credibility of the policy and science they represent. Government transition programmes have a great tendency to focus on the political objectives and lose sight of the outcomes previously delivered. New Zealand can’t afford that mistake this time.


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One Response to “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”

  1. Corner Cabinet · Says:

    food processors can really shorten the time it takes for you to prepare home cooked meals ,'”

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