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.
Having forged a career in food safety and security, Helen
Darling believes it is good to be grounded on where food comes
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
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
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
''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
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
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
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
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
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
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
''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
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
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
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.