Top assurance organisation heads drive to give consumers more data about their food.

Premier food assurance organisation AsureQuality says potential disruptors like plant-based meat substitutes could be "great opportunities for New Zealand".

CEO John McKay says recent controversy over high-tech proteins (like a hamburger created in a laboratory) threatening New Zealand's primary produce could be viewed "more as an opportunity than a threat, in my view".

Fresh from helping New Zealand dairy company Synlait support the introduction of Munchkin's 100 per cent grass-fed infant milk formula to China by enabling consumers to understand the facts behind the 100 per cent claim, McKay says AsureQuality have a significant role in underscoring the provenance, sustainability and quality of New Zealand food.

"That's particularly so given the enormous growth in consumer demand for knowledge of what is in their food," he says. "The trend towards quality, integrity, sustainability and provenance is great for New Zealand, a real opportunity to benefit from that interest."

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Driven by trends gathering pace globally (like wellness, sustainability, ethics and animal welfare), consumer hunger for facts about the origins and quality of food goes far beyond mere labelling.

A 2013 survey by Lincoln University in China, India and the UK found that, for example, consumers were prepared to pay more for products with food safety certification and which took factors like animal welfare, water quality and greenhouse gases into account.

In the intervening period, consumer interest in their food has grown exponentially. To take a horticultural example, if someone wants a bottle of tomato sauce, they now ask (and can be told) where the tomatoes come from, how they were grown and who grows them.

The trend towards organic food has made this even more important – consumers now want the ability to discover if the food is as organic as claimed.

That's where AsureQuality comes in. McKay says: "New Zealand has a privileged position in the world. We have a great reputation [for food quality and provenance] which has been hard-earned and we have a really important role in protecting that and building on it.

"As technology changes everything, we have to move with it – and it gives us a great opportunity to tell the stories, with hard facts, behind New Zealand's premium produce."
With their partners, AsureQuality can follow suppliers and the product from inception to distribution, making each step transparent to consumers, often through QR code-enabled assurance marks, and cloud-based technology.

McKay: "We're at our best when we work step-by-step, side-by-side with our customers, using technology and insight to help them take their products from the farm gate to the supermarket.

"Having that technology is crucial, so consumers can see the facts behind the claims."
He says the invention of high-tech protein foodstuffs has to be seen in much the same light; New Zealand does not just have a global reputation as a quality food basket but also as an innovator.

"New Zealand has always been good at innovating and, in the food industry, it has been almost relentless. That's why I see this [protein-based meat substitutes] as an opportunity rather than a threat – they can be developed in parallel.

"There will always be a place for products underscoring New Zealand's properties as a producer of quality, natural food – but we need to embrace these new trends and develop them in a complementary way."

Recent statistics from New Zealand Beef & Lamb (published in the Listener in July) show that 60 per cent of New Zealand exports in 2015-16 was made up of lower value processing meat (like hamburger), but produced only 45 per cent of the exports' value; meanwhile 55 per cent of Fonterra's dairy sales (in the year to March) were also base-level commodity dairy products.

"That's the journey we are on as an industry and as a country," says McKay. "More New Zealand companies are making the shift from "volume to value" – added-value products higher up the value chain [attracting a premium].

"New Zealand has some things to improve but that's where the industry is increasingly going; a big part of our role is to help them get there."

Synlait – who supply the 100 per cent grass-fed milk to Munchkin – is an example of a New Zealand food producer understanding and deriving value from these changing consumer needs.

Beginning on farms with its Lead with Pride Programme, Synlait supports and incentivises select suppliers to achieve excellence in farming practices, including water and effluent management, biodiversity, soil quality, energy, greenhouse gasses and emissions.

It works with AsureQuality to underpin these best practices with an independent auditing programme, as well as across its supply chain from manufacturing to laboratory testing and customer launches. AsureQuality's independent expertise helps Synlait and its customers tell a compelling and trusted story of superior quality and sustainable production.

Another example of that added value is Kiwi exporter, The True Honey Co. – producing manuka honey. They work with AsureQuality to provide better assurance about the authenticity and quality of its products. Via a QR code, consumers can access verified information about anything from the origins of the product, nutritional claims and quality standards – as well as assurance it is genuine manuka honey, not imitation. The data also weaves in the essence of the New Zealand environment from which the product sprang.