Archive for December, 2015

MPI’s SOPI report suggests it is on different planet

December 23, 2015

When I read the headline forecast in the December update of the Situation and Outlook for Primary Industries report, my initial reaction was “they must be joking, what planet are they on?” After a slightly more in depth study of their analysis, I am still baffled. (more…)

MPI’s SOPI report suggests it is on different planet

December 21, 2015

When I read the headline forecast in the December update of the Situation and Outlook for Primary Industries report, my initial reaction was “they must be joking, what planet are they on?” After a slightly more in depth study of their analysis, I am still baffled. (more…)

MPI’s food safety responsibility still causing major problems

December 11, 2015

In January this year I wrote a column which argued the Primary Industries Ministry risked losing focus on two of its core responsibilities, namely food safety and biosecurity, as a direct consequence of merging MAF, NZ Food Safety Authority and Bio-Security New Zealand into a single mega government agency.

I cited the Fonterra whey protein botulism scare as an example of the new agency dropping the ball.

The WPC80 report into that incident stated “overall there was a lack of commitment to ensuring readiness to deal with a food safety event” quoting a senior official as acknowledging nobody had taken ownership of food safety.

The report went on to say the gap had since been closed.

Recent events like the Hepatitis A cases from frozen berries from China, antibiotic-resistant campylobacter in chickens distributed by three of the four largest North Island producers and last year’s outbreak of gastrointestinal bug yersinia suggest the gap remains open.

In the meantime, MPI maintains weeks or even months of secrecy before it discloses information about the identity of suppliers or the source of the problem.

Even worse, sometimes, as in the case of the yersinia outbreak, the named culprit is found not to be the source after all.

I argued at the time MPI’s four key areas of focus, as listed in its 2014 annual report, were as follows: maximise export opportunities, increase sustainable resource use, improve sector productivity and protect from biological risk.

It seemed then and still seems staggering that the most important role of all, protection from biological risk, should come last instead of first in this list of priorities.

In case people think this is just semantics, consider the benefits of the previous structure when NZFSA was split out from MAF in 2002 and run as a sole-purpose government department between 2006 and 2011.

NZ’s food safety reputation was at an all time high among our trading partners and I struggle to remember any serious food disease outbreaks, although I might not be entirely correct.

The food safety performance of the red meat sector still demonstrates the excellence of the standards put in place under MAF and NZFSA.

 

Unfortunately, the performance of Bio-Security NZ under MAF control was not as impressive during the first decade of the 21 st century, as kiwifruit growers hit by the Psa virus would testify.

The value proposition for the creation of MPI argued there was a risk of divergence in areas of regulatory policy and standard-setting, cost recovery and international standards.

Given NZ’s unique biosecurity and trade needs, the regulatory programme was not considered optimal for creating economic advantage for NZ.

However, the most important point of protecting NZ’s borders from biosecurity risks and consumers from food safety events appears to have been taken as a given, rather than disciplines requiring single-minded focus.

The National Government’s main objective has been to achieve greater efficiency and cost-effectiveness of outcomes by means of structural changes but there is a danger this focus might result in the baby being thrown out with the bath water.

I have read one comment which calls for the responsibility for food safety to be handed back to the Ministry of Health because its sole focus is public health.

The same writer also argues MPI has a conflict of interest between its priority to protect consumers and protection of food producers.

I would argue MPI’s main focus is not on producers but on economic gain for NZ, as shown by its first three areas of focus – export growth, sector productivity and sustainable resource use.

It is very easy to claim this is absolutely consistent with maintaining first-class food safety and bio-security but the point is MPI does have a conflict of interest.

Which of the four areas of focus should they concentrate on?

If the Government insists on doubling exports by 2025 while improving sector productivity and resource allocation, it isn’t difficult to see where food safety and bio-security sit in the queue.

I spoke to Labour’s primary sector spokesman Damian O’Connor about this issue in January.

He was adamant MPI is too big and has a conflict of interests between its regulatory and compliance responsibilities as well as its goal of maximising exports while the increasing quest for trade freedom is at variance with the protection of NZ’s biologically-based economy and reputation.

He wanted to see separate food safety and biosecurity agencies established outside MPI.

 

Unfortunately, I can’t see this happening before the next election at the earliest but it looks to me more and more as though we should evaluate this as an option.

At the very least we should assess the risks to NZ health and reputation of continuing as we are.