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16 October 2001
A visiting UK consumer advocate on food safety says Britain's BSE disaster would not have been such a tragedy had consumers been listened to.
Diane McCrea, an international consultant on food and consumer affairs, is in New Zealand as a keynote speaker at this week's MAF Food conference "Food Safety - Protecting Consumers and New Zealand's International Trade".
At the time the link was discovered between BSE (also known as 'mad cow disease') and the human variant CJD in 1996, Ms McCrea was working in senior management for the UK Consumers Association.
As a result of the discovery of the effect on human health, the British government introduced strict regulations around the processing of beef and its importation to the United Kingdom. "This was exactly what we had been lobbying for for years," says Ms McCrea. "We had been calling for the highest level of precaution."
Because of her high-profile involvement with the issue, Diane McCrea's work was in the media front-line and she says she did 30 interviews on the day the story broke.
The BSE crisis has given momentum to a European trend of better consultation with consumers. "Consumers are definitely more widely listened to - it's quite the flavour of the day," says Ms McCrea. "There is much greater transparency in the process of regulating for food safety and committees are opened up to consumers to demonstrate that they're doing the right thing."
It's a message the MAF Food Assurance Authority is incorporating into its work. This week's conference, being held in Auckland, takes protecting consumers and also - as a consequence - our trade, as its theme. A series of national and international speakers are covering a wide range of food and consumer issues in speeches and workshops.
"We are very mindful of the need to work more closely with and listen to consumers," says Andrew McKenzie, the Group Director of MAF Food.
Along with her perspective on BSE, Diane McCrea will also outline world trends around consumers and safe food.
"A key emphasis is on quality. In the UK we've had so much awful food - there's a renewed call for good quality food that's safe."
She says globally there's more demand for traceability. "People want to know where their food has come from and how it's been produced." Here Ms McCrea says there's no problem as far as New Zealand produce is concerned. "There is still very much a perception that New Zealand is clean and green - that you produce food in a very natural way."
Another emerging trend is one of a concern for animal welfare. "Consumers are questioning how animals have been looked after. Battery hens and intensive pork farming are big issues in Britain."
And another issue is one of what's called 'food miles'. A number of consumers, particularly those wanting less processed, less sprayed or organic food, are asking how far a product has travelled. "They don't want carrots from Austria when they can buy them from the farmer down the road."
Diane McCrea says the demand for organic produce is huge in Europe. She has recently co-edited a handbook on organic food processing and production.