Most people would almost certainly see the primary role of Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) as the protection of New Zealand’s biosecurity, food safety and primary production. The creation of MPI was designed to meet a number of objectives, one of which, probably the most important, must surely have been to ensure a world class agency to deliver this priority, writes Allan Barber.
Since 2012, there has been an increased focus on a series of policy initiatives which appear to the outside observer to be in danger of taking precedence over the core function on which our agricultural sector’s prosperity and survival depend. A reading of the 2013 and 2014 Annual Reports confirms the importance the department attributes to the protection role, but it is only one of a number of business areas which receive equal precedence.
MPI’s Vision is ‘Growing and Protecting New Zealand’ which is fine, but it isn’t an accident growth comes before protection, because that is the reason the government pushed so hard for the mega-agency to be established. The 2014 Annual Report lists four key areas of focus which appear as follows: maximise export opportunities, increase sustainable resource use, improve sector productivity and protect from biological risk. The final point should be the ministry’s core responsibility, because if that isn’t delivered, all the export opportunities in the world will count for nothing.
In May 2011, the Ministers of Agriculture and Biosecurity, and Food Safety announced the reintegration of MAF and NZ Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) after several years of separation. This would be a forerunner of the formation of MPI 12 months later. A consequence of setting up NZFSA in 2002 was the separation of the food safety function from core MAF which retained biosecurity, although at that time the new organisation assumed responsibility for domestic food safety from the Ministry of Health.
It was not for another four years that NZFSA became a fully independent government department. From its inception, until he retired in late 2010, Andrew McKenzie guided food safety from a focus on defect spotting to a science-based approach which was instrumental in negotiating better access arrangements with many of our trading partners.
Before he left, McKenzie wrote a value proposition for the reintegration of MAF and NZFSA. This expressed the view New Zealand had introduced the risk of divergence in achieving wider biosecurity and national economic goals by treating food safety as something separate to other elements of biosecurity, rather than applying an integrated approach. Particular areas of risk were seen to emerge in areas of regulatory policy and standard setting, cost recovery and international standards. Given New Zealand’s unique biosecurity and trade needs, the regulatory programme was not considered optimal for creating economic advantage or, presumably adequate protection, for New Zealand.
A major reason for reintegrating the two departments was the importance of meeting what the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) describe as the necessity for “a strategic and integrated approach to analysing and managing relevant risks to human, animal and plant life and health, and associated risks to the environment”.
However, when Fonterra’s whey protein scare occurred in August 2013, the subsequent WPC80 report stated ‘overall there was a lack of commitment to ensuring readiness to deal with a food safety event’ quoting a senior official as acknowledging nobody had taken ownership of food safety. The report goes on to say this gap has since been closed.
Nevertheless, it’s pretty horrifying the failure ever occurred, even if the merger of ministries to form MPI created pressures which diverted attention and resources. The ministry’s core function of managing biosecurity risk through a robust regulatory function appeared to have taken second place to the demands of the merger and the other sexy growth related aspects of the Vision.
Damien O’Connor, Labour’s spokesperson for primary industries, food safety and biosecurity, is adamant MPI is too big and has a conflict of interests between its regulatory and compliance responsibilities as well as its goal of maximising exports, while the increasing quest for trade freedom is at variance with the protection of New Zealand’s biologically based economy and reputation.
O’Connor goes further than the value proposition which underpinned the combination of MAF and NZFSA in 2011, because his preference is for food safety and biosecurity to be in separate agencies, but accepts the alternative of both combined under a single structure outside MPI would still be better than the status quo.
It is unlikely the present government will entertain the idea of reducing the scale and scope of MPI which will be expected to deliver all its goals within the listed areas of focus without necessarily any increase in budget. The goal of maximising exports will always threaten to suck up departmental resources which should ideally be applied to improving food safety and biosecurity. Export growth becomes increasingly challenging in the present environment of low milk prices and lower sheep numbers.
This must not disguise the fact New Zealand’s reputation for safe food production depends on the excellence of its food safety and biosecurity systems. We can’t afford to compromise them.
Allan Barber is a meat industry commentator. This item appears in this week’s NZ Farmers Weekly. He has his own blog Barber’s Meaty Issues and can be contacted by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.