Consumers should have a seat at the food safety table

17 September 2000

Consumers should have a seat at the table when we discuss food safety issues say the Ministries that regulate the food we eat.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) the Ministry of Health, (MoH) and the Ministry of Consumer Affairs will hold a Forum this week to find out the best ways for consumers to have input into food safety regulations. The forum will be attended by representatives from consumer organisations and other groups with an interest in the health and welfare of New Zealanders.

"Food is very different nowadays," says MAF Food Assurance Authority Group Director, Andrew McKenzie. "We’re eating out more, eating more pre-prepared foods or foods prepared, stored and transported using new and innovative technologies. We're also consuming a huge range of new foods from exotic locations."

"These changes mean that ensuring the food we eat won’t harm us is getting more complex. We need to think about just what "safe food" means to New Zealanders - and we cannot do this without knowing what a wide range of consumers think and feel. It’s really important that we find a mechanism which enables consumers to have their views heard and their interests represented."

International and New Zealand consumer representatives who will be speaking include :

  • Pamela Chan, the elected President of Consumers International – a group of more than 250 consumer organisations from 111 countries
  • Ned Groth, Senior Scientist from the US Consumers Union with a particular interest in food safety
  • Heather Yeatman, an Australian academic and consumer representative for ANZFA (Australia New Zealand Food Authority) and
  • David Russell, Chief Executive of the NZ Consumers Institute.

"We hope that participants in the one-day forum will help us identify ways of involving consumers in the critical decisions we have to make over the next few years, " says Dr McKenzie.

Background information

The forum is being held on Tuesday 19 September at Turnbull House, Bowen Street, Wellington.

Media representatives are welcome to attend the addresses from guest speakers during the morning sessions from 10.00 am to 12.15 pm.

For further information contact:

Andrew McKenzie, Group Director, MAF Food Assurance Authority, Ph. 04 474-4250 or
Sandra Daly, Director Business Services, MAF Food Assurance Authority, Ph. 04 4744286 or 021 735 696 or
Judy Cochrane, Communications Advisor, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Ph. 04 470 2302 or 025 230 8058

Speakers will be available for interview. Please contact Sandra Daly or Judy Cochrane – details above – for assistance in arranging this.

Background to Guest Speakers

Dr Ned Groth, Senior Scientist, US Consumers Union

Issues of interest

Dr Groth believes consumers want and should have a seat at the table in food safety decisions. Government decision-makers and industry need to listen to and learn from consumers.

Dr Groth will examine the principles of 'risk communication" - that is, communicating the risks of a product to consumers. Professionals in food safety agencies (and other scientists) often think of themselves as objectively using facts, and think of consumers as drawing conclusions based on subjective perceptions and emotions, rather than facts. But we’re all human and we all have subjective perceptions, often more than we might like to admit. To succeed as a risk communicator it can be helpful to bring some of these subjective biases (your own and those of the people you’re communicating with) out into the open and examine them.

Risk Communicators must aim for the conveying of factual information about the risks, and the exchange of information and views about risk-related issues. They must not use communication as a tool for calming people down when they are too "emotional", or to get people to to agree with them or share their value judgements.

Background

Dr Groth's career has been spent ensuring the concerns of food consumers are heard and validated with sound scientific evidence. In his work at the Consumers Union he has coordinated technical input on food safety, risk communication and related topics to the editors of the prestigious Consumer Reports - a widely read publication of product tests. He is the co-author of a book Pest Management at the Crossroads and the writer of a number of technical reports analysing the risks associated with pesticide residues in food. He has directed investigations into the migration of plastic components from food containers into foodstuffs and a national survey of lead levels in consumers' drinking water.

Pamela Chan, President, Consumers International

Issues of interest

Ms Chan believes that civilised society, and particularly consumers, can no longer be an outside lobby voice but needs to be at the table watching and monitoring as well participating in making decisions and setting policies. The way we govern our markets, our environment, economies and our businesses needs to change in the coming years. This is because in the current 'information age', consumers are on the one hand more informed as to the adverse consequences of various goods and services on their health and environment, but on the other hand are feeling less able to influence decision makers to take account of their concerns. Regulation of international business and the assertion of consumer and other public interest rights need to be, in the business jargon of the 1990's, re-engineered. We need to define, as a matter of urgency, what kinds of institutions, what resources (and where they should come from) and what means of accountability we want to see. Consumer policy is about social justice and peoples' right to participate and contribute. Markets alone will not provide for our needs and the needs of our families - within a successful market we need strong consumer policy, strong consumer institutions and a strong independent consumer movement.

Background

Consumers International has more than 250 member organisations from 111 countries. It aims to support and strengthen member organisations and the consumer movement in general, and fight for policies at the international level that respect consumer concerns.

As well as being President of Consumers International, Ms Chan is Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Consumer Council. She is also Vice Patron of the Community Chest, a Non Governmental Organisation which raises and allocates funds to support 140 social welfare agencies in Hong Kong.

Dr Heather Yeatman, Director, Australia New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA)

Dr Yeatman believes strategies must be developed for communication and consultation between regulatory agencies, community groups and consumers.

Dr Yeatman is a Senior lecturer in public health at the University of Wollongong, Australia. She ahs extensive experience at the local food policy level, work in health promotion, community health, and with healthy Cities and Local Governments on food-related issues. She is also a member of the Food Safety Advisory Committee of New South Wales.

David Russell, New Zealand Consumers' Institute

David Russell is Chief Executive of the New Zealand Consumers Institute Inc. He is responsible for the Institute's research and commercial publishing activities and is public spokesperson on current consumer issues. He represents the Institute in a number of Industry and Government organisations.

In his speech David will cover the need for consumers to have factual information so that they can make their own decisions. He will also talk on the difficulty of ever getting a single 'consumer' view on any particular issue. He says that consumers are a diverse bunch and if we are looking for someone to represent consumers there will always be someone who will be dissatisfied.

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