Report on New Zealand’s Dairy Food Safety Regulatory System - Independent Peer Reviewer’s Report

I was approached in late August 2013 by the Hon Nikki Kaye, Minister for Food Safety, who requested that I act as the independent peer reviewer for a Government Inquiry that was in the process of being set up to investigate the WPC incident, which had come to light earlier that month. I had no hesitation in agreeing to take on this important role.

I have been kept informed as the Inquiry has progressed and can confirm that its work has been carried out to a very high standard and that views of all major stakeholders have been sought. Opinions were also canvassed from regulatory bodies and expert organisations globally. I took part in three forums where regulators, recognised agencies and industry representatives came together for full and frank discussions on key topics associated with the Inquiry findings. I had access to any documentation I required and am satisfied with the quality and integrity of the Inquiry’s report.

I concur with the broad conclusion drawn by the Inquiry team that the dairy food regulatory structure in New Zealand is fundamentally sound and compares well with official food control systems elsewhere in the world. For historical, political, economic and cultural reasons, no two countries anywhere operate identical national food control systems. In recent years the New Zealand food control system has been audited and reviewed by international trading partners and been found to operate to an equivalent standard.

This acknowledgement has facilitated special arrangements with food control authorities in the United States and Canada. The Food and Veterinary Office of the European Union has carried out a number of audit missions of different agri-food sectors in recent years and found the New Zealand system to be broadly equivalent to the system in place in Europe. Based on these findings, together with the material I have been provided, I have no hesitation in agreeing with the Inquiry that there is no shortfall in the New Zealand dairy food regulatory system.

While the regulatory system is fundamentally sound, the Inquiry team has carried out an extensive review of current dairy regulations and found a number of areas that need attention. In line with global trends, New Zealand regulations place the primary responsibility for producing and marketing safe food with the food industry. In order to comply, food-business operators are required to put in place risk management programmes based on the principles of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system. The Government is responsible for evaluation and verification of the risk management programmes, functions which are carried out by both private-sector and state-owned organisations.

What has come to light during the work of the Inquiry is that the law relating to risk management programmes has become unwieldy, and some risk management programmes have grown into extremely complex documents incorporating many different elements of process controls, quality assurance and food safety management systems. A key recommendation of the Inquiry team, with which I strongly agree, is to re-evaluate the design of risk management programmes and to separate out regulatory and non-regulatory aspects, so that in the future the focus should be on regulatory aspects of risk-based food safety management.

The net result of any food scare, such as the WPC incident, is to shake all players out of complacency. The Inquiry has identified the need for greater co-operation between regulators and the dairy sector. It recommends a reorganisation of industry-regulator advisory bodies, a step with which I solidly agree. I fully endorse the need to develop collaborative structures between regulators and the agri-food sector during “peace time” that will allow a more structured and effective approach to handling a major food event such as the WPC incident.

The Inquiry team has carried out a meticulous review of the regulatory framework governing the dairy industry in New Zealand and has identified a number of areas for improvement. Some of the current requirements of regulations are overlapping, not easy to identify and difficult to interpret. The complexity of the different layers of regulations increases the regulatory burden on businesses, particularly the small to medium enterprises. I would strongly support the findings of the Inquiry team for priority action to rationalise and simplify dairy food regulations and to elevate the requirements for risk-based food safety management programmes to regulations.

The Inquiry has given an opportunity to stand back and carry out an objective review of where action is required to underpin consumer confidence in the safety of New Zealand dairy products. These include the need to invest in personnel training and development, particularly in the next generation. A surprising finding by the Inquiry was the low level of government funding for scientific research in the food safety sector, including in the dairy industry, given its importance to the national economy. The Inquiry has come up with a novel solution to encourage inter-agency collaboration and maintain New Zealand’s reputation as a leader in the field – the establishment of a centre of food safety science and research – an independent, highly visible body that would focus on food safety scientific research and link into similar international centres of scientific excellence.

The global food chain is highly complex and food scares and crises occur without warning. To respond to crises, robust national food control programmes are essential to limit risk to consumers’ health and minimise damage to national reputations. Emerging risk analysis is a relatively new activity that allows food regulators to engage in horizon scanning to predict the likelihood of new hazards and identify mitigating actions.  The Inquiry, in my view, correctly identifies this activity as a priority for action and setting up a risk register for the dairy sector as a first step is a logical approach.

One of the key tasks of the Inquiry was to consider traceability requirements throughout the food chain. During a food crisis, tracking, tracing and recalling implicated foods from the market and from consumers’ homes are critical functions. Experience from food crises in Europe in recent years illustrates clearly the challenges in tracing and recalling contaminated foods from the market. In 2008, it took over one month to trace and recall dioxin-contaminated pork from 54 different countries.

In 2011, it took about two and a half months to identify, trace and recall seed sprouts contaminated with VTEC O104:H7 that resulted in about 4000 cases of illnesses and 46 fatalities. Recall and traceability systems are critical components of contingency planning and the Inquiry has correctly identified the need to review these key elements and, more likely than not, incorporate them into regulations. Simulation exercises involving both industry and regulators will ensure that all are “match fit” in the event of another WPC incident.

The vulnerability of consumers is one of the critical parameters in the design of risk-based regulations. The WPC incident has brought into sharp focus the need to ensure the highest standards of food safety in the production of infant formula. In order to maintain consumer confidence and protect the reputation of the dairy sector, the Inquiry has recognised the need to develop more stringent regulatory requirements for the manufacture and marketing of infant formula and infant formula ingredients.

A very important factor identified by the Inquiry is the need to foster a strong food safety culture in both the private and government sectors. A key policy focus in recent times for the ministry has been on expanding dairy production, adding value and gaining greater access to overseas markets. Food safety appears not to have had the visibility it deserves in the ministry and there are the usual tensions between the roles of being a regulator and an enabler of industry; this is akin to being a poacher and gamekeeper at the same time. Developing a food safety culture starts at the highest level within organisations – at board level and with chief executives. The Inquiry team recognises the importance of a food safety culture and stresses the need for changes, in the dairy sector and ministry to foster a food safety culture at all levels.

An innovative approach to raising the profile of food safety at national level recommended by the Inquiry is to establish a Food Safety and Assurance Advisory Council. It would be a high-level body comprising senior individuals from business, academic or regulatory sectors, who could advise the ministry on strategic matters of food safety. This would achieve a dual purpose of giving greater visibility to food safety among consumers, both at home and abroad, and underpinning confidence and trust in the safety of New Zealand food.

I wish to thank the Chair, Miriam Dean QC and the Inquiry team for their courtesy and assistance during my work as independent peer reviewer of this report.


Professor Alan Reilly
Chief Executive, Food Safety Authority of Ireland
Professor, Institute of Food and Health, University College, Dublin

3 December 2013