Our official watchdogs on food safety in the Ministry for Primary Industries need a reminder of whose interests they serve. Their primary duty is not to the producers and retailers of groceries, as it appears to have been in an outbreak of food poisoning recently. A stomach bug named yersinia pseudotuberculosis has struck 127 people, 38 of them admitted to hospital. It sounds unpleasant. The ministry's food safety bureau has received reports from the state Environmental and Scientific Research agency (ESR) narrowing down a list of possible sources. Refusing to make the list public, the ministry's deputy director-general of regulation and assurance, Scott Gallacher, said the information was far from conclusive.
Awkwardly for him, Foodstuffs has now confirmed that two of its bagged lettuces - Mesclun Salad Lettuce and Fresh Express Lettuce - are on the list. The supermarket company deserves credit for coming clean. Anybody with those products in their larder can bin them. The credit Foodstuffs gains means it can credibly announce it has traced the suspect produce to three farm paddocks and it is confident other bagged lettuce carrying its Pams brand are safe for consumption.
If a big retailer finds it in its own interest to warn people of any possible risk, why have the officials been reticent? The Medical Officer of Health for Canterbury, Dr Alistair Humphrey, is right. It looks like a conflict of interest within the ministry serving primary industries. The Health Ministry, which commissioned ESR's reports, announced last week that bagged lettuce and bagged carrots were the suspected sources of the illness. That was "a clear result", says Dr Humphrey, but the Primary Industries Ministry decided the particular brands would not be named.
It is time to ask whether the decision should lie with the Ministry of Health. Perhaps the final decision on food safety warnings should lie with a health official rather than a minister. Even the Prime Minister defended the silence of primary industries officials on Monday, arguing that products should not be named until it was certain they were at fault.
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He needs to lower that threshold slightly when people are getting sick. If we have 127 people succumbing to food poisoning and a survey of 96 finds 87 had eaten bagged lettuce, it hardly matters that only 17 could remember the brands. At that point those brands should be named.
Foodstuffs saw fit to name its two products though they were identified by only eight of those who were laid low.
There have been no new confirmed cases of the poisoning since September 30 so the bug has probably passed but all the suspects on ESR's shortlist should be named. If nothing else, it would reinforce the message that it is wise to wash all fruit and vegetables before eating. But disclosure always does more. It sends the message that suppliers need to be on their toes ensuring their soil and handling procedures are safe and supermarkets will frequently audit them as well as their own procedures.
Early public warnings run the risk that innocent suppliers will be harmed as well as the guilty and that risk has to be set against the seriousness of the food poisoning. The number hospitalised in this case suggests the illness was severe. It may be that regulators of product assurance in primary industries are not best placed to make the decision.
The Labour Party advocates a stand-alone ministry of food safety, but we do not need more ministries. The Health Ministry is the obvious alternative. It commissioned the ESR surveys to find the source of this outbreak and it made known that lettuce and carrots were the prime suspects. It should have the authority to name brands when evidence points to them. Health matters most.