Food consultant has plenty on plate

It has been a big year for food integrity consultant Helen Darling, who left Oritain Global, the pioneering company of which she was founding chief executive, launched her own consultancy business and brought an international food safety conference to Dunedin. Dr Darling is the Otago Daily Times Business Leader of the Year 2013. Business reporter Sally Rae caught up with her.

Otago Daily Times Business Leader of the Year 2013 Dr Helen Darling believes there are amazing opportunities in Dunedin. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Otago Daily Times Business Leader of the Year 2013 Dr Helen Darling believes there are amazing opportunities in Dunedin. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Having forged a career in food safety and security, Helen Darling believes it is good to be grounded on where food comes from.

And over the summer holiday period, she will get no better grounding than helping pick tonnes of apricots on the Central Otago orchard that she and husband Mike bought a year ago.

The orchard, on the road between Cromwell and Wanaka, boasts not only apricot trees but other fruit, including cherries, mulberries, figs, feijoas, pears, apples and peaches, along with walnuts.

Picking fruit under the searing Central Otago sun will be a welcome break from what has been a busy year and ahead of what is already shaping up to be another ''massive'' year - one that she believes will be both incredibly exciting and very fast.

Engaging, down-to-earth and with a keen sense of humour, Dr Darling has become somewhat of a high-profile face when it comes to food safety and food security, during an era where the origins of food - and a desire for safe food - have increasingly been in the spotlight.

One of her major challenges during the year was bringing an international food safety conference to Dunedin.

Delegates from China and the United States attended the event which was part of the Global Food Safety Forum, a United States-based non-profit organisation.

It was the first time it had been held outside Beijing. Dr Darling persuaded the organisation to hold it in Dunedin, which proved to be a major coup.

While a coincidence, the timing was significant given various food-safety issues which included the Fonterra botulism scare, which made headlines globally, and problems with New Zealand manuka honey.

Organising the conference in a short space of time was ''pretty intense'' but there needed to be dialogue in New Zealand, post-Fonterra contamination scare and that conversation could not be led by Fonterra or the Government, she said. China was a fascinating place, where policies could change in a day, and New Zealanders were ''small players''.

Awareness of what was going on in New Zealand's major market was very significant and it was a discussion that needed to be had in Dunedin.

Feedback from conference-goers had been ''extremely positive'' and most wanted it to be held again - and in Dunedin.

''I do probably need a wee break before even thinking about that,'' she said, laughing.

In April, Dr Darling was part of a high-level business mission and cultural delegation on an official visit to China to celebrate the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations and the fifth anniversary of the China New Zealand Free Trade Agreement.

That trip proved to be ''life-changing'' in terms of the networks she was exposed to and she had forged some ''really good connections'' throughout New Zealand.

She was also part of a Trans Pacific Partnership US-New Zealand council trade mission to the United States, which was also exciting.

She was appointed to the board of the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), a position she was very much enjoying. It brought together aspects of the work she had done in the past - environmental health, and forensic science. She is also on the board of Export New Zealand and the Otago Southland Employers Association.

Dr Darling left Oritain Global about four months ago and established Darling and Associates, providing a bespoke service for food producers, exporters, importers and regulators. Her interest had evolved more into macro food safety and looking across the whole supply chain.

She was interested in how the burden of food safety could be changed to add value for New Zealand producers.

An exciting project, which could not yet be revealed, was under way and it was shaping up to be a big year, she said.

Dr Darling grew up on the Taieri and, after completing her secondary education at St Hilda's Collegiate, she went nursing.

While she had originally wanted to study law, the skills gained from her nursing career - including disciplined thinking, good time management and observational skills - had proven valuable. After about six years nursing, she got a little bored so she did her masters degree, followed by a PhD in public health, which focused on tobacco control.

After completing her doctorate, she became interested in food provenance. Oritain Global was founded nearly seven years ago.

Since then, the company has been pioneering commercial food origin systems, working with everything from meat, dairy products and honey to vegetables, fruit, coffee beans, seeds, wine and wool.

By looking at the properties in a food or product that were natural, it could map those properties and conclude where it was from and whether or not it was authentic.

Her years at Oritain were interesting. It was set up as a global company ''from day one'', so it differed from the normal business model. The company had gone from ''strength to strength'' and it was employing more staff. It was a good time to leave, she said.

Big changes were afoot with the Darling family's lifestyle. Mike Darling is going to live in Central Otago full-time, while Dr Darling will be based in Dunedin during the week and commute.

Previously in the police force, Mr Darling later worked for Oritain. Originally from an orchard background at Ettrick - ''it's in his DNA'' - he was very supportive of his wife's endeavours.

Dr Darling was already away from home a lot, so being based in Dunedin during the week was ''just like a normal week''.

While it would be easier for her work to move to Wellington, she was committed to Dunedin and Otago.

''Dunedin has been a fantastic place to bring up my kids. It's a fantastic city to live in,'' she said.

Travel was part of the norm for her and she strongly believed that Dunedin needed to have a strong presence in Wellington.

''If you want to influence policy-makers, you've got to get up there in front of them,'' she said.

Relationships were key.

''We've moved out of the transaction age into the relationship age'', she said.

Dr Darling was as passionate as ever about the work she was involved with.

''I go to work in the morning ... I don't know what's going to be in the in-box, and that's fun,'' she said.

But it had not been easy, it had involved a lot of hard work and being a woman in business still had its challenges.

A key was to surround yourself with positive people ''that go, 'we can do that', not 'oh, that'll be hard','' she said.

''I think I'm lucky to be surrounded by people that are so supportive. That makes it easy.

''There's just good people up and down the country. Damned good people. Damned good people in Dunedin,'' she said.

Her work was hopefully adding value.

''I couldn't ever be involved in something that wasn't contributing in some sense, not making the world a better place.''

There were amazing opportunities in Dunedin but it was a matter of being able to see them and ''going for it''.

''I think our kids are more able to do that than our generation,'' she said.

People now had to take action and responsibility for realising those opportunities.

Dr Darling grew up being told that nothing worthwhile was easy - ''just growing up, you learned you get knocked down, get up, do it again'' - and she described her late parents as ''incredible''.

They understood education and family were very important and they provided a secure family environment. She also inherited a strong sense of citizenship that she hoped had been passed on to her own children, ''that if you can make a contribution, you should''.

Both she and her husband were involved with voluntary work ''from time to time'' and, while she was doing her PhD, they set up a community-based programme to teach children how to cycle.

Already, their two sons were ''plotting how they are going to improve the world''.

The Darling File
Education: St Hilda's Collegiate, MA from Victoria University, PhD from the University of Otago
Married: to Mike
Children: Mathew (22) and Hamish (16).
Interests: include fishing, tramping and cooking.

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