Food integrity selling point

The first conference on food integrity in New Zealand will look at issues such as combating food...
The first conference on food integrity in New Zealand will look at issues such as combating food fraud. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
When we buy food, we expect it to be what it says it is and to be safe to eat, but things may not always be what they seem.

Charmian Smith
Charmian Smith

There is a recent case of a company in Brazil exporting rotten meat; in Europe there is a big operation targeting food fraud; and, closer to home, imported frozen berries were linked with hepatitis a couple of years ago, and this year, eggs from caged hens were sold as ''free range''.

Helen Darling, of Asia Pacific Centre for Food Integrity, says that when there is a financial differential between the real goods and the substitute as well as a low likelihood of getting caught, then any product is potentially susceptible when it leaves the producer's control or oversight.

She is organising the first New Zealand conference on food integrity in Auckland next week. There will be several prominent overseas speakers as well as an additional course on combating food fraud. Having attended a number of overseas conferences on such topics, she thought it was time these conversations happened back here where food is produced.

Food integrity is more than just correct food labelling, although that is important. The food also has to be produced safely, be stored and transported correctly and reach the consumer safely, she says.

You can have safe food products that are not authentic, such as olive oil that appears to come from Italy but is actually from Spain or Tunisia, which happens a lot. It is likely to be exacerbated this year, as the Mediterranean olive crop is light, she explains.

Regulators are trying to address the issue but often the absence of a clear definition - an example is manuka honey - means that it is not always straightforward to prove that something is a fake.

Dr Darling, who lives on a Central Otago orchard that sells its produce locally, is aware you cannot add complexity and cost to a supply chain unless you can prove an advantage for a producer. There has to be a balance.

There is no one solution to the problem of food integrity. You have to take both a ''40,000-foot view'' and an extremely focused approach.

Every part of the process from how the food is produced on farms and in the factory to where it is sold needs to be scrutinised to see where risks might be. Is there pressure on inspectors to meet targets, or places where someone might add or substitute something, or where the product might not be stored or transported in the right conditions? Exported products are specially vulnerable as not all countries have the same technology as we do, she says.

Food fraud has the potential to disrupt food supply and cause illness or even death and could have a detrimental impact on the reputation of New Zealand and its food brands.

''The melamine one [when contaminated milk found its way into baby formula in China in 2008] was a classic. Fonterra had entered into a relationship and were dragged down by the behaviour of their partner.''

However, things are changing. The Chinese Government is investing heavily in food safety, she says.

''China wants to be taken seriously on the world market. They want to be taken seriously in food and they need to be able to support and feed their own people. We are only going to see better and better things, and they have the resources we don't have.''

While we in New Zealand think we know what we are doing and what we can influence, it is likely the Chinese will tell us what to do, she says.

''I had a delightful but also very eye-opening experience a few years back. I went to a big dairy company in China and the woman who was doing the guided tour for me was delightful and at one point I said, 'What does food safety mean to you?' She looked me in the eye and said, 'If I get it wrong, I'm shot' - and she wasn't joking!''

A representative from the Chinese Government visiting recently said they saw New Zealand as a pristine environment, she says.

''They cannot understand why we would do things that might compromise our environment under the pretence of feeding the world. We can't feed the world. We need to produce really good food. Our fresh water is the key thing they value and that few other countries have. Then he made the comment that they have poisoned their land and they are setting about remediating that and it's not easy. It's much better not to do it in the first place.''

In China, they want not only safe and nutritious food, but also food that is of the same quality that we eat.

''For a long time, we have thought we can do it in bulk and send up anything, but for a lot of the people I work with in China, if it's not generally consumed in New Zealand, then why would you be selling it to us? That's an easy yardstick to measure,'' she says.

''One of the great things we still have to our advantage, if we are thinking about it in a competitive way, is the fact that our vegetables grow in uncontaminated soil.''

We are lucky supply chains here are relatively short and there is a good regulatory system, but that is not necessarily the case in countries to which we export, she says.

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