Breaching consumer trust is something a food manufacturer must not take lightly as lessons learned from the recent European horsemeat scandal show. As a result, in the ‘new reality’ – as one UK retail leader put it – complete traceability, transparency, integrity and trust will be required. The New Zealand meat industry is well placed to meet these requirements.
Substitution of one meat for another – such as horse for beef as happened in Europe – is highly unlikely to happen in New Zealand, says Meat Industry Association chief executive Tim Ritchie.
“There are legal requirements in New Zealand not to mislead the customer and there are checks and balances in place to ensure food products are what they say they are,” he says.
According to Glen Neal, food and beverage manager at the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), the Ministry received a number of New Zealand-based media enquiries as a result of the overseas media furore, all focusing on New Zealand’s systems for protecting against meat substitution.
In response to these and other trade enquiries, MPI set out the processes in place to ensure the integrity of New Zealand meat. All slaughterhouses must operate under a risk management programme registered with MPI, which includes procedures to ensure product is labelled correctly. There is a Species Verification Programme, which checks that regulatory requirements which have been put in place to ensure truth in labelling with respect to species of origin are working. Every year, MPI collects 300 random samples of meat from cold stores. Each sample of, say sheepmeat, is tested first to confirm it is sheepmeat and then for contamination by cattle, deer, goat, horse and pigmeat. The test method – an enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) – is very sensitive with a level of detection of one percent.
Tests are conducted independently by an MPI contracted laboratory using the International Accreditation New Zealand (IANZ) method.
Testing laboratories in Europe were put under enormous strain to meet DNA-testing demands. However, should New Zealand ever be hit with a similar food scandal, Neal is confident that there would be sufficient capacity for testing here.
“The New Zealand laboratory network is quite resilient and has coped admirably with fluctuating demand in the past, he says, pointing to examples including the melamine incident of 2008.
“It’s been a useful reminder that consumers are very interested in what they eat and what they feed their children.
“Providing sufficient, accurate information to consumers is essential to maintaining reputation, trust and credibility,” he believes.”Technologists, processors and everyone involved in the production of food should ensure consumers’ interests are at the centre of everything they do.”
Neal believes New Zealand has a great reputation as a trusted supplier of food. “We have standards and systems in place that are both world-class in terms of ensuring food safety and cost effective for food businesses.”
Traceability to source
MPI’s checks are backed up by official documentation. Export certificates are issued by the authority, on special paper with security features to prevent fraudulent use, and consignments (either containers or cartons of meat) are officially sealed by MPI officers, prior to export.
For many years, New Zealand’s meat exporters have had an efficient system of tracking a carcase/box of cuts through tags/labels indicating the meat export licence (ME) number of the plant the animal was slaughtered in and other identifiers, leading back to the herd/flock and so the farm of origin.
This has been reinforced by the recent introduction of the National Animal Indentification and Tracing (NAIT) scheme. Already mandatory for beef since July 2012, deer joined the NAIT scheme on 1 March this year. The system requires that information about individual animals to be entered into the nationwide database and details of the management and movement of the animal is recorded. All animals must be mandatorily radio frequency identification (RFID)-tagged under the programme, which is consistent with World Organisation for Animal Health guidelines.
NAIT and the Animal Health Board, which runs the TBfree NZ programme have recently merged into a single organisation – OSPRI NZ – which will see “smarter use of data” and provide an opportunity to help other organisations in biosecurity programmes, says OSPRI chairman Jeff Grant. The new organisation is headed up by William McCook.
Another layer of checking – and transparency – is applied by retailers and foodservice companies themselves. Major retailers run their own traceability schemes such as M&S Select, where only selected farms meeting stringent criteria are chosen to supply the chain through the processor. This involves audits and visits from buyers to New Zealand’s meat plants and supplying farms. Alliance Group, for example, has recently hosted groups from Sainsbury’s farmer suppliers, a Chinese food company and representatives from two Belgian importing companies.
Once the meat leaves these shores and tags/boxes are removed, however, this means New Zealand meat can potentially be vulnerable to misrepresentation. There have been cases in Europe and China where meat from another origin has been fraudulently mislabelled as New Zealand’s – piggybacking on this country’s reputation as a supplier of quality meat.
While DNA testing reveals the meat species, it cannot identify the origin of the meat. A young Invermay-based company has come up with a solution. Oritain has been working with New Zealand’s largest processor of sheepmeat Alliance Group Ltd, to develop a ‘fingerprinting’ method to authenticate the origin of lamb, along with other foods and natural products. Based on an idea from forensic science, it uses an independent origin system based on the geochemistry of the environment the animals are produced in to certify the origin of the animal.
“Put it simply, if you can map the origin of a product, then you can tell where it is from, anywhere in the supply chain,” says chief executive Dr Helen Darling.
She believes that New Zealand is now uniquely placed to deliver ‘traceability, transparency, integrity and trust’.
“What this means is that NZ can claim the highest level of integrity of products bearing the ‘made in NZ’ claim,” she says, adding that the assurance system relies on a proactive approach. Reference data is entered into the system before it leaves the country and every product gets an Oritain certification code.
Applying a systems approach to what they do means that Oritain can gear up to scale, in the event of a major event, very quickly, explains Darling, “We need reference data to be able to rapidly exonerate a producer. Trying to get reference data retrospectively can be expensive (and sometimes impossible – particularly with seasonal products that may have been sold already). Everything we do we do to a forensic standard.”
Oritain has been received well in destination markets though it does depend on product type and market. “We have had high level meetings with US and Chinese officials who like what we do. One of our wine clients gets a premium for his wine now in Australia,” she adds, “the benefits are more than just acceptance by receiving markets but also rapid exoneration, brand protection and premium protection and so on.
“To our knowledge no other country can achieve this level of transparency, yet,” says Darling.
This article has appeared in Food NZ magazine (April/May 2013) and is reproduced here with permission.