Comment: MPI must get balance right between regulatory function and growth, says Barber

Allan BarberThe rash of food scares and rejected shipments in recent months must inevitably raise the question whether MPI has become too big to do its job properly, argues meat industry commentator Allan Barber. What isn’t at issue is the crucial importance of a government ministry which has responsibility for regulating all agricultural, seafood and forestry exports and imports.

New Zealand is a trading nation dependent on trade agreements with international trading partners for a major proportion of its wealth and prosperity. Some of these agreements are governed by the World Trade Organisation’s terms, others are regional like ASEAN and then there are the bi-lateral free trade agreements such as CER and the free trade agreement (FTA) with China.

This last example points to the problems associated with developing a trading partnership with a new partner. According to Scott Gallacher, MPI’s acting director general, the operating environment and growth of new markets place an onus on New Zealand Inc, not just MPI, to change. When meat shipments were held up on the docks in China, while a documentation problem was sorted out, he says this sent a strong message the Ministry had not evolved fast enough to cope with the emergence of China as a trading partner.

This country has developed strong relationships with overseas regulators in traditional markets like the EU and USA, but that’s not where future growth lies. It is essential for exporters and MPI to work closely together to ensure food safety procedures, technical specifications, quality assurance and documentation are all correct.

Equally important is the protection of New Zealand’s borders from external biosecurity threats, not just at the border, but also pre-and post-border, which again is where co-operation and information sharing between importers and government agencies are essential.

The entry of the virulent Psa V kiwifruit virus is the most recent, high profile example of a biosecurity incursion and MAF’s 2011 report, Psa –pathway tracing report, is at a loss to know how it came into the country. But my understanding is Psa was never identified as a potential risk, although its presence in Italy was already known.

If this was the case, there was an automatic failure to take the first of three vital steps, let alone the next two, which are to identify the issue, make the risk management decision and implement it. MPI must ensure its risk managers do their job by identifying potential risks before they arrive in the country.

However, where there is a known risk, any decision to allow certain products, like pork and chicken from China, to enter the country must have sound science as a basis. This would attract strong objection from domestic producers, but, provided the science can prove there is no threat, there should be no objection to importing a product from a trading partner under the relevant trade agreement. This would result in lower prices for consumers and eliminate any potential for tit-for-tat trade restrictions.

Gallacher admits the organisation wasn’t particularly good at learning lessons from either real or simulated biosecurity scares, like Exercise Taurus, the Waiheke foot and mouth disease trial, but he is now adamant MPI is learning these lessons and putting together better systems to ensure the same problems don’t happen again.

Exercise Taurus was carried out in 2005 for the first time with rather chaotic and incomplete outcomes; the second exercise was in March 2012 and recovery notes after the event found MAF – or MPI as it became – had a primary focus of trade policy and biosecurity instead of emergency management. This resulted in poorly defined strategies, poor internal communication and poor operating procedures, as well as a failure to provide a cross government response.

In Gallacher’s view, MPI’s core systems are food safety, biosecurity and growth in primary production. Therefore emergency management remains a subset of biosecurity, but must surely be elevated to a greater level of priority than suggested by the seven year gap between Taurus One and Two.

Gallacher rejects any suggestion MPI has taken its eye off the ball, but others have expressed the view MPI has slimmed down too much while focusing on policy and the overall export growth agenda rather than its core regulatory function. Events of the last few months have surely emphasised the priority which should be dedicated to ensuring MPI retains regulation of food safety and biosecurity as its major role. If not, the benefit of forming a super Ministry is rather doubtful.

At this point I have two great wishes – first, the State Services Commission will have paid particular attention to getting the job description right for the next director general, leaving that appointee in no doubt where his or her priorities lie; second, the Prime Minister should appoint a Primary Industries Minister with sufficient influence and seniority to provide the leadership the primary sector deserves.

Allan Barber is a meat industry commentator. He has his own blog Barber’s Meaty Issues and can be contacted by emailing him at This post has also appeared at NZ Farmers Weekly.


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