I must admit I too was gobsmacked when I heard the news that the tests from independent laboratories offshore proved that the bacteria was not the toxic Clostridium botulinum, but the non-toxic version Clostridium sporogenes. However, according to microbiologists, there are many different C. bacteria: some potentially affect humans, some cattle and some are just food spoilage and have no toxic effect. Luckily, C. sporogenes is the latter: a food spoilage version. The difference between the two in question is, apparently, just one gene that switches on the toxicity in botulinum.
Dr Heather Hendrickson, lecturer in evolutionary genetics, Massey University, says that it might surprise people that the two are so difficult to distinguish. “They only differ by a single gene. This highlights a fascinating and frustrating aspect of bacterial evolution. For reasons that have a lot to do with the history of the field and the way bacteria evolve, the names we use do not correspond well with the genes (capabilities) these organisms possess,” she explains.
“This is complicated by the fact that bacteria exchange genes across species boundaries, a process called horizontal gene transfer. This process contributes to making bacterial identification difficult in the best of circumstances.”
So identification of the problem in question is not as easy as it might appear.
In terms of product recall, in my humble opinion, fearing the worst was the right approach. You can’t leave a potentially dangerous food product in the market and then – oops! – recall it later after consumers have been harmed, or even worse as was the potential in this case, died. This has been vindicated by reports from within China where Fonterra and the New Zealand government’s approach has been applauded. We’ll find out in time, but the company’s focus was probably, at least initially, on its offshore consumers and on its own intellectual property.
There has been lateral collateral damage, in terms of countries raising seemingly nonsensical non-trade barriers to New Zealand’s dairy products and the country’s image from some media offshore. These will be smoothed over, but it will take time.
In the meantime, however, here in New Zealand politicians – already in a pre-election frenzy – have clambered in hob-nailed and the mainstream media has raced off to carry those messages to be the first with, in some cases, ill-researched items.
There are many lessons here to be learned by the meat industry, which has in the past – with government help – handled product issues professionally, smoothly and effectively.
There have been questions about NZ Tourism’s 100% Pure brand for many years. Many have coat-tailed on its success tailored to attract visitors to these shores, but no food producer can ever claim to be absolutely, completely 100% pure. It’s time for reality to set in.
New Zealand is a world leader in food production of which the meat industry is part. The sector represents a very respectable percentage of exports and its success is key to the Government’s goal of achieving its Export Double by 2025. Safeguarding those efforts has to be key. Food safety has to have a separate focused organisation, rather than being lost within the super-Ministry of Primary Industries. Hey, I know, we’ll call it the New Zealand Food Safety Authority.
Our research establishments and food/meat scientists are respected around the world. Those scientists should have been used, or asked, early on – along with the release of more scientifically-based user-friendly information – to explain what the microbiological situation actually was, rather than leaving it to others to guess and speculate.
The meat industry hasn’t got that many experienced senior executives to fall on their swords in the event of a product scare, so it places even more onus on getting it right and doing the right thing. Every time.
Finally, before you join the lynch mob, it might pay to remember that in this ever connected age, we’re not only watching the world, the world is watching us.