Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni: Bring home the bacon butty

Free-trade rules are unforgiving - however terrifying food imports appear to our own farmers

Illustration / Anna Crichton
Illustration / Anna Crichton

If there is one thing I have learned from watching Coronation Street over the years, it is that a lard-infused "bacon butty" is, to an Englishman or woman, the ultimate comfort food.

New Zealanders would embrace this culinary icon if bacon wasn't so expensive; here, the butty doesn't seem to be whipped out with as much frequency as it is in Manchester, where it is practically a staple food - or so Coro would haveit.

Perhaps that's just as well, as recent research shows eating too much processed meat, particularly salami, ham and bacon, can significantly increase your risk of premature death, cancer and heart disease.

If I was British, however, I wouldn't be backing away from that sarnie just because of the saturated fat and nitrates. I would also be wondering where all that processed pork is coming from.

In light of the scandal involving horsemeat turning up in supermarket-sold "beef" lasagne, you'd have to wonder who is ensuring the quality of this most tricky of meats.

And if you were imagining that most of those pigs that yielded your bacon were plump, happy and frolicking in English clover, you'd most likely be mistaken.

It would also be a mistake for Kiwis to think most of their processed meat products were once blissfully gambolling across local paddocks. Each year more and more imported pork makes its way into the food chain - mostly through our consumption of cheap processed meat such as luncheon sausage and cheerios. It's a figure that grows year on year, ignited by a non-stop appetite for these products (and bugger the health advice).

Given that the Ministry of Primary Industries, pressured by our trade commitments, has just won a Court of Appeal case to force the country to accept imports of raw pork meat, it seems likely the current proportion of imported pork - about 45 per cent of the total market - will grow even further.

One of the main problems with the decision is that it allows meat to come from countries that have evidence of porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), a flu-like virus in pigs. The local industry, currently free of this virus, is petrified that it could become established here. Even though it won't mean anything to consumers beyond the "ick" factor - the disease doesn't affect humans or non-pig animals - it does present a challenge to our currently clean, billion-dollar domestic industry.

That industry already works to rigorous standards around animal welfare, antibiotic use, biosecurity procedures, hygiene and disease containment and elimination, and is burdened with many more costs than the cheap product it frequently has to compete with.

No, it's not fair, but the simple fact is that our trade agreements don't allow us to deny entry to products where science hasn't overwhelmingly proven harm.

We haven't learned how to fight the international trade system using every trick in the book to protect our local industries, like the Australians, who have kept New Zealand potatoes and until recently apples at bay by any means possible.

We don't seem to have learned from food scandals in Europe that have seen thousands of people turn off whole food segments. We haven't even learned from the scorn poured on our "clean green" tagline by the international press.

Our high-value, rigorously quality assured, disease-free status is a bargaining chip, it seems, for trade negotiations with countries such as Canada and Mexico - countries that have little to offer us, or us them, but will still be able to compromise the sovereignty of our food chain.

- NZ Herald

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Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

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