They had one of those, the New Zealand Food Safety Authority; government reinvents wheel

The New Zealand government is to set up an independent food safety advice group to recommend regulatory changes in the wake of last year’s global recall of dairy products over a false botulism scare.

barf.o.meter.dec.12The Food Safety and Assurance Advisory Council was one of 29 recommendations from the Government Inquiry into the Whey Protein Concentrate Contamination Incident released in December last year, Food Safety Minister Nikki Kaye said Wednesday.

“At the moment there is no independent group that looks at the whole of New Zealand’s food safety and assurance system and is able to provide high-level independent advice and risk analysis,” Kaye said in a statement.

“This council is being set up to do this and will report to the director-general of the Ministry for Primary Industries. It will provide a valuable sounding board for new ideas and contribute to raising consumer and market confidence in New Zealand’s food,” she said.

She also expected the six-member expert panel to identify current and future trends, risks and issues that may impact on the country’s food safety and assurance system.

Dairy giant Fonterra pleaded guilty in a New Zealand court last month to four food safety-related charges connected to global recall of whey protein concentrate over the false botulism scare, which happened in August last year.

Fonterra is also fighting a civil case brought by French food giant Danone, which is claiming compensation of 350 million euros (483.59 million U.S. dollars) for the scare.

Food safety head honored by Queen

Now that the New Zealand Food Safety Authority has been gutted absorbed into the Ministry of Agriculture, former head honcho and veterinarian Andrew McKenzie has been awarded the Queen’s Service Order in the New Year’s honor for services to the state.??

Dr McKenzie worked as chief executive of NZFSA from 2007 to 2010 and moved from Wellington this year to retire in Greytown.

"We lived in Wellington for about 25 years and we really liked it, but the weather was quite lousy and it was never very warm so we thought here would be a nice place to retire because it’s got its own microclimate and it’s not too far away from Wellington, so we’re really happy here."

??Dr McKenzie started life in the food safety industry as a vet at a meatworks before moving on to bigger and better things such as serving as the chairman of the Meat and Hygiene Committee of the Codex Alimentarius Commission and chairing the World Organisation for Animal Health’s Animal Production Food Safety Group.?

His biggest achievement while working at NZFSA was negotiating trade deals with Europe.

??"I sorted out some quite big trade deals with Europe, which had a major influence on the international standard for meat hygiene," Dr McKenzie said. "A lot of countries put up technical barriers in trade and that’s what I’ve spent my career fighting."

I prefer this 2008 photo.

Food safety shake-up for NZ restaurant inspection

New Zealand restaurants and food service outlets feed 1.5 million people daily.
Food safety is an integral part of this experience. It’s a competitive advantage and an absolute necessity for one of the country’s cornerstone industries; it’s a customer’s expectation and right to buy food, enjoy it and live to tell the tale.

So says Steve Mackenzie, chief executive of the Restaurant Association of New Zealand, writing in the New Zealand Herald.

But the hospitality business is about to get a shake up by way of a long-awaited Food Bill that will focus on food safety. The intent of the bill is to move food regulation in line with other developed countries, by shifting from an inspection-based system to a risk-based approach.

Whereas the present system involves an environmental health officer calling unannounced and touring the premises, the new operations will involve proprietor records, premise inspection and interviews with staff.

The Restaurant Association of New Zealand represents a select group of hospitality businesses and has been involved in consultation and pilot-testing of this new programme. Most association members support the new bill.

Members who participated in trials reported that they liked having control and accountability of their business back in their hands.

Simple documentation procedures, one handy manual covering all food safety aspects and clear guidelines for staff were also useful. In many cases the proposed changes were less onerous than the current programmes.

But with less than 12 months until transition, more than 90 per cent of the country’s eateries haven’t registered. That’s around 13,500 businesses.

A survey in April that confirmed the association’s worst fears: many business operators will wait until the last minute to make changes.

Worse still, many are not aware the changes are coming, and even those who were aware that the review was taking place, more than 55 per cent had little knowledge of the impact that this would have on their businesses in less than a year.

And despite knowing that there is proposed change, 60 per cent of those surveyed have made little or no preparation.

The biggest hurdle as we have seen in our survey results is awareness. There are many businesses that simply do not know they need to make changes.

The association recommends that the select committee working on the bill considers extending the first year transition of high-risk businesses from 12 months to 24, to ensure that under-resourced councils will be able to properly assist with implementation.

New Zealand’s ‘relatively ordinary’ rulebreaker

I call Andrew McKenzie a friend, and he calls me a reprobate.

Fair enough. He certainly dresses better.

And has more tolerance for meetings.

Business Day in New Zealand has a profile of the 62-year-old retiring Food Safety Authority chief executive with all the old stories, probably told through certain filters.

What I remember best – through the fog of good scotch – was an outstanding lamb dinner a pregnant Amy and I had with Andrew and his wife at their home overlooking Wellington in 2008, followed by an All Blacks rugby match on the tube.

Andrew McKenzie could justly claim the title of the father of modern meat inspection conferred on him by a speaker at a European conference recently.

The retiring chief executive of the Food Safety Authority was a lowly government official in the mid-80s when he had the temerity to challenge the European-imposed rules governing meat inspection.

The actions that flowed from this led to savings of many millions of dollars to the meat industry and freed up international trade.

He encountered his first silly rule as a young Agriculture Ministry meat inspector in the mid-70s. It required the inspectors who worked with meat workers on the slaughter chain to inspect the heads of all sheep to look for signs of disease.

Dr McKenzie knew this was unnecessary because there were no signs of disease on a head that couldn’t already be seen in the normal inspection of the carcass, but it was demanded by Britain as a requirement of accepting our exports.

The head had to be skinned, adding huge cost to sheep processing. Three or four extra butchers had to be employed on each chain, as well as one extra meat inspector. Ten years later he was in a position to do something about it.

He convinced the meat companies to run trials. In one day 325,000 animals were killed. No signs of disease were found on the heads that were not already uncovered by inspection of the rest of the carcass.

He presented the results to the British authorities and they agreed to change the rules.

It meant the loss of up to 500 seasonal jobs, but the industry estimated its savings at $10 million-$12m a year.

He went to the European Union headquarters and argued that many of the rules didn’t make sense in the New Zealand context. "They asked me to list them. Three days later I came back with 200 examples. When I flopped this on the table, they said `Ah jeez, this is a bit hard’."

The result was an "equivalency" agreement between Europe and New Zealand.
"That agrees there’s a bunch of basic things you need to do to make a difference to public and animal health, but there’s also others that are just good meat manufacturing and hygiene practice and they can vary," he says.

"Since then our relationship has gone along really well."

The agreement cleared the way for trade and was used as a template by the United States and Canada.

Crucial to the ongoing success of the agreement, and those that followed, has been New Zealand’s reputation for integrity and honesty in international trade.
"We’ve been scrupulously honest and people can rely on our word," Dr McKenzie says.

"And we’re pretty good thinkers – putting new ideas on the table, and taking a lot of their ideas, building on them, trialling them, modifying them and feeding them back into the system."

That they are, as Katie has just returned from a year working with NZFSA, helping develop a national restaurant inspection disclosure system.

New Zealand ads food safety adverts

The New Zealand Food Safety Authority has just released a couple of new food safety advertisements for television.

Chapman and I looked them over, would have liked a thermometer, and don’t like the message that food safety is simple (otherwise, we wouldn’t all have jobs) but overall the ads seem better than most. As Marshall McLuhan said, those who try to distinguish between entertainment and education don’t know the first thing about either.

What do you think? 

New Zealand fruit and vegetable safety – good, but we’ll make sure we do better

Every time there is a food safety outbreak with fresh fruits and vegetables, some journalist or lobby group will call up and say something like, “we want to do some sampling for E. coli or Salmonella and fresh produce.”

And every time, Chapman or I will walk the person through the limitations with testing, especially in fresh produce.

New studies by the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) highlight the limitations. In one, two out of 900 samples tested positive for Salmonella in lettuce, both from lettuces from the same grower.

In a related study, none of the chemical residues detected were of health concern, although NZFSA principal advisor for chemicals Dr Paul Dansted says he is disappointed with results from this year’s Food Residue Surveillance Programme (FRSP), which targets food likely to show up problems. This year’s focus was on spinach, celery, ginger and garlic.

“A significant number of samples had levels over the maximum residue limit (MRL) which is used for monitoring purposes, but it’s important to stress that dietary intake assessments on the non-compliant food showed none posed a health or food safety concern.”

Eight out of 27 celery samples and four out of 24 spinach samples had residues that were over the limit. There were none over the limit in 50 samples of garlic, but ginger had 11 samples out of 39 over the limit.

“Celery and spinach can be more vulnerable to persistence of chemical residues,” Dr Dansted says. “Because of their shape, residues that wash off in the rain can collect in the base of the plant. We expected to find some problems, but this is not good enough. We will take regulatory action to ensure better compliance in future.”

Properly structured sampling programs are essential to validate that food safety programs are working. But testing is not enough.

Dirty dozen food warnings are simplistic and suck

It’s end-of-year, so lists are big, and I’m fond of my Top-5 Records label list.

But some are just dumb, and it’s good to see the science types in New Zealand calling out some BS.

The Dominion Post reports tomorrow that toxicologists have accused a food safety campaigner of a lack of understanding after she advised people to eat organic celery to avoid pesticides.

Alison White has ranked celery at the top of a list of foods likely to contain pesticide residue, but scientists say that does not mean indulging in the vegetable will cause any harm.

Ms White, who is a researcher and co-convenor of the Safe Food Campaign, said consumers wanted information about whether their food contained pesticide residues.

Canterbury University toxicology professor Ian Shaw said Ms White’s table, which she published on the group’s website, displayed "naughtiness" in referencing research about cancer risks among people who sprayed vegetables, not those who ate them.

Ms White’s comments also showed she did not understand the difference between how dangerous a chemical was, and the actual chance or risk of it causing any harm.

The Food Safety Authority’s principal toxicology adviser, John Reeve, dismissed Ms White’s suggestion that pesticide residues could be making our food unsafe.

"Alison White and her colleagues have no expertise in toxicology and don’t understand the science."

Dr Reeve said pesticide limits were determined by how much of a chemical growers needed for it to work.

That limit was hundreds of times lower than the levels that would have any impact on human health, he said.

UK Food Standards Agency sucks at food safety advice

The holidays bring bad food safety advice, and in what’s turning into an annual tradition, it’s time to bash the Brits.

The Food Standards Agency is hoping to reduce the number of food safety clangers that are served up this Christmas, with its Christmas food safety advertising campaign.”

WTF is a clanger?

Oh, Dick van Dyke, is there nothing you can make sound Cockney?

“The Agency’s TV and radio adverts are jovial but have serious underlying messages about the preparation and cooking of turkey:

don’t wash it (you don’t need to)
defrost it thoroughly
cook it properly

That’s terrible grammar; a bulleted list should contain bullets, with semi-colons and an end period. I thought the Brits were serious about this stuff.

“The Agency’s research has shown that many people wash their turkeys before cooking, with older women the most frequent turkey-washing offenders. But washing meat or poultry can cause harmful food poisoning bacteria to splash on to worktops, chopping boards, dishes and utensils, where they can linger for days.

“Partially defrosted turkeys are another common festive food safety blunder.”

This is good stuff: don’t wash the bird, and defrost the thing – notice they don’t say whether it’s OK to do it on the counter or not.

But then, once, again, with all the food safety communication thingies in the government employ, the best they can come up with is,

“To ensure that the turkey is cooked properly, make sure it is piping hot all the way through. Cut into the thickest part (between the breast and thigh) to check that none of the meat is pink, and the juices run clear.”

No. Use a tip-sensitive digital thermometer. Color is a lousy indicator.

UK chief science thingy, Andrew Wadge, I’ll be in the U.K. Jan. 2 – 10, and I’d be glad to meet with you and your crack food safety risk communication team to talk about turkey prep recommendations.

Shurley some mistake: FSA wins clear communicator award

From the there’s-an-award-for everything category, the U.K. Food Standards Agency has apparently copped a statue for clear communication about listeria.

“The Agency has been given an award by the Plain English Campaign for a leaflet advising the over 60s about food safety and the food poisoning bug listeria. Food safety and healthy eating messages are often based on complicated science, but the Agency strives to make these messages as accessible to as many people as possible. We are therefore pleased that these efforts have been recognised by our partners and by the Plain English Campaign.”

The U.K. government agency that has millions of dollars to engage consumers and the best they can come up with is to serve turkey ‘piping hot’ rather than use a thermometer is now blowing itself for its, ‘Look out for listeria’ campaign. The award-winning leaflet is attached, and it essentially blames old folks for getting listeria.

The science is not complicated and neither are the communications. The level of state-sponsored arrogance is somewhat alarming.

Atypical scrapie in single NZ sheep

Contrary to what the New Zealand Herald reported tonight (this morning in NZ), the animal in question was born in NZ, not the UK, because NZ does not import sheep from the UK.

MAF Biosecurity New Zealand (MAFBNZ) and the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA)
today confirmed that a series of New Zealand and European laboratory tests on a single New Zealand sheep brain have detected the condition atypical scrapie (also known as Nor 98).

Atypical scrapie/Nor 98 is a relatively recently discovered brain condition of sheep and goats that is quite different from the classical form of scrapie. 

Neither atypical scrapie/Nor 98 nor scrapie is known to pose any risk to human health or the safety of eating meat or animal products.

MAFBNZ Principal International Adviser Dr Stuart MacDiarmid says global knowledge about atypical scrapie/Nor 98 is evolving.  The widely accepted mainstream scientific view is that it occurs spontaneously or naturally in very small numbers of older sheep in all sheep populations around the world.

“This positive detection of atypical scrapie/Nor 98 in a sheep from New Zealand’s national flock reinforces that view.  Every country that has conducted sufficient surveillance for atypical scrapie/Nor 98 has found it in their flocks.  This includes most Scandinavian and EU countries, the UK, the USA and Canada,” he says.

The detection does not change New Zealand’s status as free from scrapie.

Dr MacDiarmid says because of this scrapie freedom status, New Zealand supplies sheep brains to the European Union for use in the development of tests for scrapie. 

“The affected brain was one of a consignment of 200 brains sent for this purpose.  EU-authorised tests carried out in New Zealand prior to shipment had not picked up anything unusual.  However further tests in Europe and re-testing in New Zealand on different parts of the brain from the area originally tested have now established a diagnosis of atypical scrapie/Nor 98.

There is no evidence that atypical scrapie/Nor 98 can be transmitted naturally to other animals or to people, or that it in any way affects people.