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17 October 1996
The proposed devolution of government responsibility for front line meat inspection tasks to meat companies would not adversely affect food safety standards or market access, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Meat inspection tasks would still be performed by competent and trained personnel; the proposed change related simply to who can employ them.
MAF Regulatory Authority’s Acting Chief Meat Veterinary Officer, Dr Caryll Shailer said to-day, “The government is not proposing to remove itself from its responsibility for ensuring food safety nor from its obligations to provide international trading partners with official assurances.
“It is proposed to bring meat inspection up to date, with a systems based approach to food safety. Modern food safety and inspection regimes have consistently moved to introducing process control and quality assurance at all stages of the food chain,” she said.
In the case of meat safety, Dr Shailer said the industry already undertook the preslaughter sanitation checks, was responsible for hygiene at slaughter and for the hygienic handling of carcasses, and checked product load out temperatures. “It is illogical for Government to retain responsibility for the on-line supervision of just one part of the chain, particularly as that part does not cover all the critical points where product safety is put at risk.
“It is time to bring the regulatory environment for meat inspection up to date and for it to be based on modern food safety principles if the increasing international and domestic consumer demands are to be adequately provided for,” she said. “This involves Government setting handling and processing standards and verifying that these standards are met. It is for industry to find the most efficient ways of meeting these standards.
The Public Service Association has claimed that a proposal that meat companies should carry out their own meat inspection was “a recipe for economic suicide” and that “self-regulation has been a tragic failure overseas”.
What was missed by the PSA, Dr Shailer said, was that the micro-organisms which cause food poisoning and potentially endanger human health are undetectable to the naked eye. Prevention of these incidents lies in process control and a good refrigeration chain. “They would not and could not be picked up by meat inspectors at post mortem inspection because they are just too small to see.”
Dr Shailer said the most effective way to prevent these micro-organisms from contaminating food was to enforce the mandatory standards for handling, treatment, storage and cold chain maintenance which are designed to prevent microbial contamination of meat, prevent their spread and reduce the potential for them to multiply.
Food safety incidents such as those described by the PSA were primarily attributed to breakdowns in process control and temperature abuse rather than a direct result of self- regulation. “It is these types of incidents which are driving the changes in how meat hygiene systems are delivered internationally, putting the emphasis on industry to demonstrate “due diligence” in providing safe food for consumers,” she said.
Within the United States, Canada and Australia, moves by governments to shift the primary responsibility for the safety of food to processors were coupled with the imposition of mandatory requirements for processors to design food safety programmes and process their food stuffs in accordance with specified principles. This is generally known as the Hazard analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) approach.
Dr Shailer said that rather than a decline in food safety standards, as claimed by the PSA, standards would be maintained, with the potential for improvements. “This is because part of the package which will be implemented side by side with this one is to ensure that the penalties for breaching these standards far outweigh any financial advantage which an operator might hope to gain by breaking them.”
Furthermore, she said the verification system would always be independent from company activities. “To be accredited as a verification agency, any organisation must be able to meet conditions for managing conflict of interest, training and on-going competence, and performance standards for both personnel and the overall systems. Conditions for managing conflict of interest include criteria for maintaining the independence of this organisation from commercial activities.
Dr Shailer said all these proposed changes would be considered in the context of the Meat Amendment Bill by the Select Committee when it reconvenes.
(Note: MAF’s Regulatory Authority (MAFRA) is in charge of setting food safety standards, specifications, auditing, monitoring and enforcement. MAF Quality Management (MQM) which employs the Meat Inspectors, is the Ministry’s service delivery arm.)
Media inquiries to:
Dr Caryll Shailer, Acting Chief Meat Veterinary Officer, (04) 474 4100