13 Nov 2013

Food safety forum tackles botulism scare

10:45 pm on 13 November 2013

An international food safety conference has begun by tackling Fonterra's milk powder botulism scare head-on.

The three-day conference which began at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery on Wednesday is the first the Global Food Safety Forum has held outside Beijing.

Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy.

Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy. Photo: RNZ

New Zealand organisations are trying to use the conference to repair the country's battered brand in the eyes of overseas consumers.

Fonterra's scare in August this year over a bug in dairy products, which ultimately proved not to be botulism, sparked three big investigations and a major Government overhaul.

Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy told 50 delegates from China, the United States, Australia and New Zealand on Wednesday it is a case of having to adapt very quickly to the new realities of consumer power and information.

Mr Guy said hosting the conference is a big opportunity.

"This is incredibly valuable for New Zealand, it gives us an opportunity to showcase our world leading food safety systems. Of course, there will be some learnings that come out of the ministerial inquiry and the compliance investigation.

"Fonterra's just recently released their report, their 33 recommendations that they're adopting. So we will learn from this."

However, Federated Farmers chief executive Conor English was much more blunt. He told delegates that food safety is New Zealand's number one issue - and the botulism scare was damaging and a massive risk for the economy.

Mr English compared it to Christchurch's February 2011 earthquake.

"The stuff that happened with Fonterra and the dairy industry is very like the earthquake ... and if they can't get, frankly, their s*** together so that they are better for it - then I think New Zealand's in a lot of trouble.

"So I hope, that they do - but the jury's out for me, to be honest."

The director of Victoria University's contemporary China research centre, Xiaoming Huang, said Fonterra's problem was not as big a deal in China as it might appear from New Zealand.

Professor Huang said New Zealand food still has a very good reputation and believes the public over-reacted.

The Global Food Safety forum's founder, Rick Gilmore, said time will tell if New Zealand's response so far is the right one.

"Agricultural and ag exports are so important to the New Zealand economy, that you can't afford to do otherwise. I think everybody recognises that. So my impression is that New Zealand has held on to its claim to be a food safety model."

The conference's focus will now shift to new food safety technologies and trends, and ways to prevent problems like Fonterra's happening again.