Primary industry heads worry the existing system is in danger of being undermined. Nigel Stirling reports.

Primary industry bosses fear New Zealand's "world-class" food safety regulatory system is in danger of being swapped for a costly and inflexible set of rules, which do nothing to raise performance and will only dent competitiveness.

An inquiry into food safety regulation governing the dairy industry last December found it was not a factor in last year's botulism false alarm.

In fact, it found the system to be "as good as any in the world".

Still, the Government Inquiry into the Whey Protein Concentrate Contamination Incident (WPC80) came back with a raft of action points to bolster the system and safeguard against future food safety threats.

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Industry bosses fear the fox being let loose in the chicken coop as officials from the Ministry of Primary Industries are left to work through the detailed implementation of 29 recommendations.

These include recasting procedures for food recalls and moving legal responsibility for crisis response plans to officials. Two new quangos will be set up to highlight and provide advice to officials on how to deal with future food safety risks.

Discussions involving 150 primary sector executives conducted by consultancy firm KPMG has found little confidence in officialdom to get the balance right in any shakeup.

Transcripts released to the Herald quote one participant, from the horticultural industry, who believed the botulism false positive was a "political scare" rather than one based on any real risk to consumers in foreign markets.

Accordingly, industry should be prepared to take up the cudgels against "unnecessary demands and requirements being placed on our producers given the inherent quality of our food safety systems."

Another, from the dairy industry, said the status quo where manufacturers were left to implement their own systems for managing food risks so long as they delivered the safety benchmarks set for them by the regulator, which had served NZ well in the past, was in danger of being undermined.

"It feels like we are moving to a tick-the-box system rather than one which delivers real quality assurance to customers."

KPMG's head of agribusiness, Ian Proudfoot, says the comments reflect widespread concerns at the potential to add unnecessary cost, and stand in the way of company-to-customer relationships.

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"The concern is that, in the desire to be seen to be doing something, the something that is done ends up being more damaging to the sector than standing behind the integrity of what we already have in place."

In the meat industry, there is unease that well-signalled moves to cut out government middlemen from basic inspection tasks at processing plants could be stymied. Last year the industry paid AgriQuality $87 million for post mortem inspections of carcases for meat quality which the industry believes could be carried out by its own employees.

Meat Industry Association chief executive Tim Ritchie says whether a government or company inspector carries out the task is irrelevant to food safety but he worries the frenzied atmosphere surrounding food safety in the dairy industry could lead officials to block the move.

"The danger is that we are all bundled up together and something is done because of the political optics and we as a sector are asked to bear the costs of that."

He says the industry's preference is for companies to be left to deal with food safety threats through their own risk management systems and for these to be periodically audited.

"The last thing we would want to do is compromise food safety outcomes because the whole basis of our positioning internationally is about having very good systems in place."

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The inspiration for the sidelining of government meat inspections came from meat industry and MPI officials working together through the industry's own Strategic Directions Group.

Formed four years ago, the group has tackled a number of food safety and market access issues specific to the meat industry. Its role is not a million miles away from that of one of the two quangos recommended by the December inquiry.

The Food Safety Assurance Advisory Council will report quarterly to the Director-General of MPI to "provide high level independent advice and risk analysis" on the "whole of NZ's food safety and assurance system".

The NZ Food Safety Science and Research Centre -- expected to be up and running by the end of the year, with a $5 million budget -- will provide the scientific grunt for the council's deliberations.

Ritchie fears the wide ambit of these two new bodies could squeeze out industry input into regulations governing meat companies.

"We don't want something where we find that we have to tread water for a number of years while everyone else catches up."

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The executive director of the Dairy Companies Association, Kimberly Crewther, says it is still too early to determine the exact course officials intend taking with food safety regulation in the wake of the botulism affair.

A Food Safety Law Reform Bill is unlikely to see the light of day until after September's general election.

But Crewther says she shares some of the reservations expressed by others about the potential for a more prescriptive approach to regulation by officials.

"The preference for the sector has always been for a more outcome based approach - if you focus on outcomes there is greater scope for flexibility and potentially reducing the compliance costs for how those outcomes are met."

She is hopeful officials will take the chance to cull unnecessary and overlapping regulations.

Last year's inquiry noted 12,000 pages of regulation -- enough to fill three metres of shelf space -- governing the dairy industry alone.

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"There is a balance where making requirements clearer as opposed to what I would say is more prescriptive."

MPI's point man during last year's botulism crisis, deputy director-general Scott Gallacher, denies a more prescriptive system is on the way.

"When you look across the bulk of the recommendations it was not about having a rigid approach or introducing aspects of rigidity.

"They were about ensuring that we could provide the requisite level of trust and assurance to consumers that whatever leaves manufacturing premises in New Zealand is safe and fit for purpose."

Gallacher even turns the allegation back on the companies themselves.

"An emphasis on compliance does not involve us moving to more of a tick-the-box system that is alluded to."

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China not our dictator

The Ministry of Primary Industries says New Zealand's food safety regulation is not being dictated by Beijing.

Comments from roundtable discussions conducted by KPMG and seen by the Herald show perceptions are different among primary sector bosses.

"We should be taking the high ground based on good people and trust-based customer relationships but it appears that MPI and the Government are finding it very hard to say no to China," one says.

"No system will fully mitigate the risk entirely but it is not clear that our government is brave enough to push back against China at times," says another.

Industry bosses fear NZ will cave in to China when it comes to food safety standards and abandon the risk management system NZ companies are allowed to operate under currently.

Following last year's botulism false alarm China had already cracked down on several aspects relating to imports of dairy products from NZ.

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One chief executive spoken to by the Herald says it is difficult for the Chinese to comprehend NZ's hands-off system which relies on a higher level of trust between businesses and officials than exists in China.

"Our challenge is to demonstrate to the Chinese that they should have confidence because we do have good regulatory systems and processes in place."

Deputy director-general Scott Gallacher says China is no more dictating food safety regulations in NZ than any other major market. "China much like any other market is actually seeing their consumers expecting higher levels of confidence and assurance of the fitness and safety of products that they are consuming and that is something we are seeing throughout a whole lot of markets not just in China."

He says manpower has been boosted in Beijing and in MPI's market access teams in Wellington. This has let the ministry be more "proactive" in dealing with matters relating to food safety and regulation.

Dividends have come from the number of dairy plant and meat company accreditations by Chinese regulators.

"As I understand NZ was the only nation to have our general dairy premises and manufacturers approved at the first instance.

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"We also have a situation where we have the most meat premises registered than in any other nation.

"That is all in the context of us being proactive and ensuring that China does appreciate the equivalent level of assurances and confidence that they would expect to see."

Gallacher says primary industry exporters could hardly complain they were being held back by regulation when China has become the number one export destination for most of them in a relatively short space of time.

Nigel Stirling is a South Otago farmer and agribusiness and trade journalist.