The move to deregulate meat inspection is the latest risk to our reputation as an exporter of high quality food. Our $6 billion red meat sector is at risk according to an explosive investigative report by Metro Magazine's Max Rashbrooke.
The report alleges a serious list of food ongoing food safety violations, and an inspection regime that is flawed and poorly overseen. Some of the more serious allegations:
- Meat companies are being allowed to inspect their own product for things like faecal contamination, despite its potential to cause serious illness or death.
- Inspectors employed by meat companies are being given financial incentives not to slow down production by identifying contaminated meat.
- The Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) allowed company-employed inspectors on the job with just two days' training, as opposed to the 20 weeks that government inspectors have.
- MPI failed to inform export markets about key details of the new system.
- In one incident, an unqualified worker was allowed to inspect carcasses - and MPI may have misled the European Union when it inquired about the incident.
- Poorly trained company-employed inspectors are unable to do the job properly, leading to numerous incidences of diseases and defects being missed.
- Checks on company-employed inspectors are being manipulated so that their failures are not picked up.
- The remaining government inspectors are being pressured not to raise their concerns.
The idea of allowing meat company inspectors to take over some tasks from government inspectors has been around for a while. Despite concerns from inspectors and food advocates, trials have gone ahead, and currently five plants are using company-employed meat inspectors. Meat processors are keen to push this model out to the rest of the industry as they can see cost advantages in the system.
Having spent some time in freezing works, I've seen first hand the speed of the lines, and the tremendous skill and efficiency of the workers.
In the frantic pace of the line, inspectors have roughly eight seconds to perform the required checks on each carcass. Internationally prescribed best practice for inspection lists 30 procedures. All staff are under significant pressure to keep the lines moving.
If the company-employed inspectors were only responsible for minor defects and the appearance of the meat, it wouldn't be such a problem. While nominally overseen by government inspectors, these company-employed inspectors are operating on their own much of the time.
Rashbrooke's report makes it clear that government inspectors simply don't have the numbers to properly oversee the inspection process, leaving lesser-trained company-paid inspectors to detect signs of disease and faecal contamination. It would appear they are failing too often.
If faecal-contaminated NZ meat was to get into the market of one of our major trading partners, the consequences for the red meat sector could be catastrophic. A contamination event, followed by a recall, would make last year's Chinese "documentation debacle" look like a minor inconvenience.
Farmers and industry bodies like Beef and Lamb are constantly striving to improve on-farm productivity, lift farm gate prices, and improve access to export markets. It would be a tragedy if this good work was undone by the processing industry's short term focus on cost cutting, enabled by a hands-off government.
We saw Fonterra's rapid and comprehensive response to last year's botulism scare. Reassuring customers and salvaging our reputation were top priority for industry and government alike.
This catastrophe in the making deserves no less a response. Farmers deserve better than to have their good work undermined by short term thinkers and ticket clippers.
The Minister for Primary Industries needs to urgently and thoroughly investigate these allegations. Anything less would be a dereliction of duty.