New Zealand Food Safety Lecture Series 2019
Food industry and food safety leaders gave presentations at the 2019 New Zealand Food Safety Lecture Series. The lectures in Auckland, Christchurch, and Wellington covered a range of food safety issues, and audience members had the chance to ask questions.
About the series
The New Zealand Food Safety Lecture Series 2019 featured 2 lectures in Auckland, a lecture in Christchurch, and 1 in Wellington. At each lecture, experts spoke on food safety issues and audience members had the chance to ask questions.
Videos, transcripts, and presentations are available now for the first 2 lectures. Lectures 3 and 4 will be available soon.
Lecture series videos, transcripts, and presentations
Video – Responding to increasing challenges in New Zealand's food safety system (1:21.45)
Robyn Kruk, AO, Chair of Food Standards Australia New Zealand: If no one minds, I might just roam a bit rather than standing behind a podium. Firstly, Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.
It is an absolute pleasure to be here. My aim is to try and make the food system interesting. I don't need to convince you that it's incredibly important, and it’s one of the issues that really does bind Australia and New Zealand together, hence Food Standards Australia New Zealand. It's a marriage of 20 years and probably one of the longest bi-national examples of Australia and New Zealand working together successfully that we can point to. So what I'll cover through quite quickly is just a bit of our background.
I have to touch on the food regulation system, because I know you are masters in most respects. But it is a complex system, so it's worth just having a look at where it's up to at the moment and also to actually look at some of the things that are affecting the system. And I'm sure you've got a number you'd like to add as well.
I want to look at what are the things that are driving us, we call it modernization. And we also want to run you through some of the options that we are putting forward to our various ministers in addressing those changes. But we very much welcome the chance to talk to you, because this is another part of our discussions about getting it right, improving it, and in essence ensuring that both Australia and New Zealand continues to enjoy a food safety system, which I think is an exemplary one and one that we need to both maintain and also to grow.
So the future state. A bit of a background – it's an Australian statutory agency set up by legislation, and we set standards for both Australia and New Zealand. The main function is to administer the code. Everyone refers to it as “the code.”
I know some of your colleagues from the beverage industry said to me in Wellington a few weeks ago, you need about three degrees to understand what actually the code means and don't even think about going into the annexes. So there are seriously some challenges, but it is one of the most fundamental pieces of machinery and architecture that sit behind our food safety system. It's a legislatively based instrument, and it relies very much on the laws of the state or territory and also the New Zealand laws.
I really do want to acknowledge Bryan and his team's leadership in this area, so we're very pleased to take up the offer to talk to you today.
We are not responsible for enforcement. I think that's often where the confusion is. People look at FSANZ and thinks we are basically the food safety standards setter and also the regulator, but in essence those responsibilities lie with the states and territories and also with your government.
We, as Glen's title suggests, we are into the business of risk assessment, risk managers, and also risk communicators.
The food regulation system, I have seen this go from a very complex mud map with bits and pieces that make it look even worse. There is never a discussion on the food regulatory system where people don't use the word “complex” more times than you'd want to imagine.
So a credit to Glen and his team to take it down to, in essence, as simply as we can. FSANZ, we're about standards. The standards are quite fundamental. They're based on a very coherent and well-accepted and highly evidence-based system and have served the countries well for some time. We are also responsible for a number of activities, which are common to the work of the Food Safety Authority in New Zealand – the coordination of recalls.
Sadly, that's been a business that we're seeing a bit of an uplift in the last year. I think that my memory was there something like 28 more recalls last year than in previous years, and there's no doubt that each one of those recalls attracts some media attention and potentially is of concern to food safety more generally. We are also a policy advisor. I think we are one of the largest amalgams of expertise in the food science area in the Australia-Pacific region, but hopefully we are only degrees of separation away from some of the best science minds internationally, nationally, and also hold a number of those within the agency.
The policy space and I'm sure a number of the questions that you'll want to ask us today actually touch on the policy space as well. What are you going to do about food fraud? What's happening in relation to Impossible Foods? A whole range of those issues actually sit at the policy space, what both of our governments or actually what direction they'll take where they actually draw some lines in the sand.
The forum on food regulation is made up of ministers either agricultural, health, or both, from all the states and territories and also the federal minister and your minister as well too. So I truly as board chair, and as a member of the board, serve many masters. So the challenge in that regard is, obviously, to get a consensus and to get agreement across various systems.
The final part is the enforcement part. As I indicated, that lies with the states and territories. In your instance, with MPI and also in Australia with the Department of Agriculture in relation to imported food. So a very quick snapshot. Some of the people who play in that patch have touched on the ministers, touched on our roles. There's this tricky little spot between food and therapeutic goods.
If I look at it the moment we've been asked to provide advice on concentrated caffeine after the very tragic death of a young man who consumed I think a teaspoon of very concentrated caffeine in the evening and died almost immediately. So you would consider caffeine as something that can sit either in the food or in the therapeutic good space. So we obviously have an area where we cooperate and work closely with those administrations, in your instance, Medsafe.
Board of protection, agriculture and water resources, in our instance, in Australia, and also MPI, when we work in New Zealand. Gene tech, you’re not surprised, GMOs and those issues, and the interface with the EPA is equally important, and also the veterinary medicine interface.
Increasingly, our discussions also touch on issues such as antibiotic-resistant matters. And I'm sure a number of you, looking at your backgrounds, may have an interest in that area. A few more – the whole issue about food fraud, food deception. I remember very clearly issues in relation to the honey industry. Those matters are dealt with by the consumer protection agencies, the ACCC in Australia, and your consumer protection bodies here.
The regulators, I've touched on those. The areas of industrial chemicals, and the EPA. An area that FSANZ has spent considerable time on in the last 12 months has been PFAS and PFOS, and looking at the impact of those on the food chain – I think an issue which has also been prevalent in some of your areas here, as well.
Consumers – increasingly important, awareness, you will see, in all of our discussions and all of our papers, the importance of actually getting input from that particular section of the community, but also, at the same time, the importance of both production and also the manufacturing industry. So we have some major players in that space.
So that's just a very quick roadmap of the regulatory system. I'm sorry I can't make that any more interesting, but it gives you a backdrop anyway.
What do we actually look at? Again, this is a bit of background in the risk assessment. Clearly, the areas of dietary modelling and nutrition. FSANZ is about to undertake a major health survey in Australia for our Bureau of Statistics, providing us very solid data on a national basis, in terms of the nutritional sciences.
Toxicology, the obvious issues of microbiology, as well, and we also had a number of expert advisory groups. In essence, in many areas, we have to rely on the expertise of some of the leaders internationally, and quite deliberately make partnerships with colleagues in the EU, in America, in Canada, in relation to… to ensure that the body has access to the most recent scientific behaviour.
So those are the factors that Glen takes into account in his role. The issue is – and this is one of the matters that are the most pivotal for us in our operation – is the transparency of those processes. Our brand is to be independent. Our brand is to be transparent. Our brand is also to provide opportunities for engagement across all of the stakeholder communities.
The risk assessment… sorry, the risk management space – who plays in that area, and what do we actually take into account? And this is an area where policy plays a more significant role. Clearly, the system is focused on food safety, but certainly, the act also requires us to look at the trade implications. And obviously, there are whole issues that are relevant to members in the audience today.
So government and international agreements – FSANZ is an active player in APEC, in discussions involving the Chinese, their co-chair, one of those groups looking at food security, looking at food safety, and looking at far greater consistency, both nationally and internationally in relation to some of the food standards matters, for the obvious trade reasons.
Stakeholders – the consumer industry, and health professionals. This is an area where probably some of the most significant changes are occurring at a community level. Concerns about GMOs, concerns about sustainability, concerns about the ethical sourcing of food – there is no doubt the one constant factor that we see in all of these areas is that the amount of money spent on food is increasing.
The economic contribution of food is in increasing, both nationally and internationally. But the demands in relation to stakeholders at the consumer level are becoming increasingly complex, and probably have a greater impact on this system going forward. Ministerial policy guidelines – and I'll touch on those in the next slide, and our discussion on some of the foodborne illness areas is an example.
Trade and international standards – have touched on those, quite significant. What is, I think, important about our relationship through FSANZ is, in some instances, we may be competitors, but both of us benefit very strongly from having food safety systems that are trusted and actually have a monetary value – a reliable, safe food system. So a lot of the cooperation that occurs between Australia and New Zealand through food standards is actually based at increasing the competitiveness of both countries, in that regard.
Cost benefit analysis – our obligations under the act require us to look at cost benefits in the development of applications, looking at them quite broadly – whether it be a labelling issue, whether it be looking at the broader impacts of taking something to market, some of the manufacturing implications, timing, and all those issues.
Labelling – the demand increasingly is for greater transparency, more information about source of food. There are increasing demands on us, in relation to some of the ethical sources of food products, as well too – and obviously, also legislation.
The final one I want to touch on is risk communication. We are increasingly, in our work, looking to social and behavioural research. An area like ours, where there is a strong focus on regulation, looks very much at getting a better understanding of what actually influences behaviour, what is necessary to actually change behaviour, and what also actually leads to far more informed consumer groups. So this is an area that's an increasing priority in our work profile.
Looking at some of the factors that are impacting on the system at the moment – the increased globalization of food production and supply. You look at it on the market. You look at the rate at which that change is occurring, looking at quite different forms of commerce, the proliferation of e-commerce. Most of our labelling, current labelling is still very much geared at point of sale. You look at the whole change in relation to the food supply system.
You look at the whole development of new industries in that space – the rate and pace of technological change in industry innovation, the desire for often quite existing big players to become front runners. Looking, as I touched on it earlier, in relation to plant meat substitutes or complements, the rate at which the market is changing quickly on that internationally, and the desire to be leaders in those areas.
Consumer expectation about information – a stronger societal focus on diet, health, and well-being, all matters that would be unique, not unique to Australia or apparently internationally, as well too. One which is really significant, in terms of us going forward, is the desire to have regulatory structures actually proportionate to risk, to ensure that we've got the resources to spend on areas where there is the biggest risk to safety and to ensure that we can actually respond more quickly, and also consider the opportunities for innovation.
The fiscal constraints on government agencies – not unique to New Zealand. Bryan will take some comfort in that. And certainly, we've looked at our budget being consistently challenged, as the demand goes up.
Drivers affecting the system – what was significant in the last two years is the ministers having got together and, quite deliberately and strategically, looked at those issues that are common to the states and territories nationally in Australia, and also to New Zealand.
Not surprisingly, foodborne illness was one of the ones that was number one, in relation to commonality. I know, in Australia, and I'm sure that we'll hear about it in more detail in Steve's presentation, over 4 million preventable instances of foodborne illnesses occur in Australia roughly a year. And the major issue is that they're preventable. It's an issue that has a massive potential to influence public confidence, and that's very difficult to retain, and also to regain.
Secondly, and this was a very significant one, and one with some major impacts in going forward, is to support the public health objectives to reduce chronic disease related to overweight and obesity.
Now, this is an area where I'm afraid our statistics are somewhat worse than yours. 63% of Australians are either obese or overweight. You are lucky, in effect, that it's only one in three, but when you look at the statistics in relation to obesity and overweightness on children, where in Australia it's one in four, it's an issue of major public concern. So not surprisingly, ministers agreed that was an area that should be a priority across both countries and across the system, and certainly an area which is now a major consideration for FSANZ.
Finally, maintaining a strong, robust, and agile food regulatory system. We have undertaken two quite big discussions in New Zealand with stakeholders. I know some faces around the room.
And quite honestly, what's working? Where are you having difficulties? What do you not want to lose? What is really quite critical, in terms of maintaining, but where are the areas do you really think that we need to and can actually do better? New Zealand is leading this particular area with the Victorian government, so a matter that's close to Brian's heart and also across at the ministerial level, as well. So these are the three priorities that are given to us on a system-wide basis.
I think I don’t need to cover that. Probably the very clear message is our marriage agreement's 20 years old. The legislation is old. The legislation actually tells us step by step what we have to do, rather than actually getting us to look at outcomes. In some instances, it makes this very difficult for us not to go through the same steps time and time again, as it is in the case of processing aids.
So we've had a lot of feedback. Yes, it's time to actually have a look at are there different ways of doing it. Can we actually do it better? Can we do it more efficiently?
But very clear message, and this came from the Wellington meeting a few months ago, as well – but let's make sure that we don't disturb what is a very effective relationship. Let's not actually undermine in any way, but only to support the integrity of the system, the independence, the transparency, the opportunities for engagement, just to name a few.
So some very, very clear messages about let's not put those issues at any risk. But clear message to us is – really have to ensure that the system that we work under is actually fit for purpose. It's got a bit old, the legislation probably needs a refresh, but also some very clear messages about where we need to and can be more collaborative, more strategic, and also more responsive.
Other issues that came through our discussions with colleagues like yourself, but also in the Australian states, is that it's currently unclear. I've used a complex word before about the system. People don't necessarily know who's who. When something goes wrong, all they know is that there's a massive response campaign that's actually organized. But at the moment, it's actually very difficult to get the face of food safety.
FSANZ is often the one because of its strong science background and its independence that does actually speak in those situations. But there is a lack of clarity, in relation to the leadership across that sector. So one of the questions is, are there ways that can be done better?
Secondly is just the access to the policy arena. People are unclear how, in effect, greater attention is going to be paid to some of the public health issues, which are generally acknowledged to be incredibly important. People are not exactly sure how to actually get change in those particular areas.
The questions here of consistency, of advice across jurisdictions, none of these would be a surprise to you. The issue that we are understandably incredibly focused on is the perception that it takes us too long to undertake a number of these proposals and applications. And this is an area, hence our focus on modernization, really looking at what we can do in our own backyards before actually looking at further… the potential for legislative changes.
New technologies – I've touched on those, rather than going into more details – and a very clear message that, in most areas, regulatory systems like ours are refreshed every few years to ensure that they can keep up with the rate of change, rate of expectations, the arguments for actually looking at some legislative change.
We call it modernization one and modernization two. I won't linger on it. The first one is very much in-house, talking with people like yourselves and colleagues in Australia, in relation to how we can actually streamline some of our processes, working within the confines of the legislation. In effect, making us easier to deal with, making your experience with us clearer – other areas where we can be more transparent.
I want to pay credit to Glen and his team, who is undertaking, at the moment, some quite challenging consultations. And he's got some other ones ahead, at the moment. He's looking at, what is it, labelling, pregnancy labelling on alcohol. We have recently been given the issue of added sugars.
In all of these areas, what's important for us is the opportunity to actually engage and get input from you in those processes. Modernization two actually takes it to the next level, looking at what we need to do to maintain the confidence in the food system. What is it that actually causes concern?
We saw, with the recent strawberry tampering incident – recent, it's 12 months ago, it's very fresh in our mind – how one act of malice can have such a profound impact across a whole system, and virtually brought the strawberry industry on its knees. The time it's taken for that to recover – I understand that the New Zealand system also had some consequences of that, so we are interlinked on those cases.
So to get a good sense of what success looks like, but also to be far more proactive in our intelligence functions to look at on the horizon – I mean look at what's troubling in other areas, where issues such as human milk are coming on the market. I've touched on plant-based protein, a whole range of issues which once… they need to be identified quite early in the cycle to enable us to respond more effectively.
Also looking at culture. We are incredibly blessed to have some of the most talented scientists. We also need to have access to a range of other partnerships, collaborations to actually ensure that our science is actually fit for purpose, and that we're an organization that people want to work in. We are blessed, can I say, in that regard, but we do understand that that our staff are our most significant asset, in that regard.
Modernization three, they're the discussions that we're currently having at ministerial level and in consultations, such as with you and your colleagues, about what a more significant shift potentially to the legislation could involve.
Metrics – I've touched on some of those, some of the key ones. None of those would be a surprise to you, rate of time, throughput, looking at some of the more qualitative aspects of consumer confidence as well, too.
Intelligence – again, I'm glad that Glen is here with us today, in terms of he may want to touch on some of those issues in the Q&A system – it is really trying to use the knowledge and insight of all of our partners across the system to use that to inform our key work, whether it be in the nutritional area and labelling, looking at food safety risk to get ahead of the game, to also ensure that the policy agenda is actually equally equipped and works in a timely manner to deal with some of those issues.
If I look at the issue of cannabis edibles, I'm conscious we're working with colleagues in the US, some of the challenges that are being faced in relation to the legalization of marijuana – so to look at where that stands, in relation to the Australian and New Zealand policy agendas, as well.
New breeding techniques – I've just picked out a few, just by way of example.
Finally, what our end game is – I've touched on it, and it's really quite significant, to ensure we have our risk assessment focused on the areas of greatest risk to public harm. So to ensure that there's a proportionality, that our focus is maintained on consumer protection and industry innovation. But clearly, with a focus on food safety being at the heart of that.
To have a more networked and responsive system. We saw, in relation to the strawberry tampering incident, where some of the interfaces between the police systems and the health and agricultural systems weren't as good as they could have been. Contacts with industries – we, on a normal a regular basis, always undertake significant debriefs, and actually look at some of the changes that have come out of the learnings of those instances.
So more networked and responsive systems – mechanism for consistency. Most industry colleagues raised the challenges for us. They still have quite different provisions in play in different states. It's an issue that's also come up with industry colleagues in New Zealand, as well too.
The ability to meet the new challenges – I've touched on one, NBTs, but there are a range of others. More transparency in the policy process – happy to touch on that later on. One of the most fundamental ones is to maintain that high level of trust in New Zealand and Australian food, and also in FSANZ as the standard setter in that game, and I think the system more broadly. Their intelligence gathering and international cooperation.
In closing, I just want to say we are, I think, incredibly blessed that we live in two countries where the food is safe, where there is a higher level of public confidence. But I think a number of us, whether it's in the horticultural area, you’ve seen some of the instances locally, in relation to foodborne illnesses, how quickly that can actually be lost.
And I think what underpins the effectiveness of our relationship is the mutual benefits, but it is a very strong focus at wanting to maintain and also to grow a system which is innovative and safe. Thank you very much for the opportunity to talk to you today.
[End of transcript]
Steve Hathaway, Chief Scientist, New Zealand Food Safety: Thanks very much, Bryan, and welcome this morning, everybody. You've had a really broad canvas drawn by Robyn about our regulatory system and how it works. And so now, we're going to narrow our gaze and look at a single issue – campylobacteriosis. And this is a disease that really has a very strong New Zealand dimension for regulators, as well as industry, and academia, and consumer interest groups in this country.
As you'll see, it unfolded more than 20 years ago, and a lot of players have come together to manage what is quite an intractable disease in this country. And as we go through, you'll see how some of the things Robyn talks about – how combining the evidence-based risk assessment with good management decisions and good communication – is critical to challenging what is, in fact, or has been, an epidemic of an infectious disease in New Zealand.
So the prologue to this story is that it is a relatively recent concern of regulatory agencies. And the first inkling that we had a major problem came through a Ministry of Health-sponsored case control study way back in 1997. And they looked at risk factors associated with increasing numbers of notified human illnesses.
And while that study pointed to poultry as being a major pathway, it didn't really tell us what the source specifically was. Was it contact with wild birds, or poultry, or food, for instance? It also showed that there were other pathways involved that needed to be examined. So it was only an early look at where this disease might be coming from.
However, the public health outcry following the MAGIC study, and as cases mounted, really increased through the early 2000s. And what was the New Zealand Food Safety Agency, at that time, responded in earnest around about 2006.
And this graph tells you just what this epidemic looked like. And it can be genuinely described as an epidemic. WHO describes an epidemic as an unusual frequency of disease over a period of time, but you can see, as this unfolded over the first few years of the 2000s, New Zealand was way ahead of other countries, in terms of notified cases.
And we were getting up to around about 400 per 100,000 people around about 2003, 2006. That's a lot of diarrhoea. In fact, I think sometimes you see this statistic, “Olympic swimming pool,” creeping into our measurement frame. I think I might work that out one day.
Not only diarrhoea, of course, but also invasive campylobacteriosis, which can be much more serious, and Guillain-Barré disease, which is a nervous disease with very serious consequences, in a very small number of cases.
So we learned from the MAGIC Study, and some of the early work done in the early 2000s, that there were a lot of possibilities and pathways for this disease.
We knew that there were reservoirs in a range of animals and birds, ruminants, companion animals, as well as, obviously, the… also in pigs. And whatever you can imagine, you could isolate campylobacter from, including wild reservoirs. We also knew that it was a common contaminant of both red meat and poultry meat coming through primary processing.
It could also be readily isolated from waterways, rural drinking water, and also companion animals. So in amongst this mix, where was the risk coming from for humans? And there were a number of pathways for that possibility. And even though we knew some risk factors by association, we couldn't actually quantify the risk.
During and over this period, as we were becoming what was coined in the newspaper as the "campy capital of the world" – up to 400 cases per 100,000. And that 400 equates, at that time, with about 4 million people, to 16,000 notifiable cases. When you think of underreporting, you're really talking about maybe 50,000 cases across the country per year – as I said, a lot of swimming pools.
And the one thing that was noticeable through this time was the increased consumption of fresh poultry. And we were totally changing our dietary habits over this period. And there was a very strong association, as you can see, between this epidemic and the consumption of fresh poultry.
So as the regulator at the time, we were faced with a number of questions. Where was this coming from? There were indications that poultry was a major pathway, but we didn't have specific risk-based evidence. So when we started to approach this problem in earnest, from a scientific point of view, we commissioned what was an emerging science called source attribution.
And this is where we do specific studies and monitoring down to the molecular level of different sources, look at pathways, and try and find out proportionately where those human cases are coming from. And once we know that relative proportion of cases, then as a regulator and as an industry, you can start focusing on what are the best risk management measures for the money spent.
And at the same time, we began in earnest to investigate the outbreaks that were occurring and they weren't restricted to food. There were raw milk outbreaks, and also a number of outbreaks associated with drinking water and other odd pathways. Taking this approach, investing in the science, investing in source attribution with our academic partners at Massey University, we were able to start putting the evidence together for a systematic response.
So the early attribution studies, before we were able to respond as a regulator, are shown here. And this is some very good work done at Massey University, at the time. As a regulatory agency, we sponsored the PhD student to do this work initially – Patricia Mueller.
And this is what came out of the first three years of her study – a very strong association of human cases, in the yellow there, with poultry consumption, a lesser association with bovine and ovine cases, and then lessening to a very low association with what we know are other possible sources.
And this work was carried out with a combination of molecular genetics, and also epidemiological work. So this gave us a very good steer as to where we should focus with our industry partners on trying to address this problem.
So 2007, we implemented a very comprehensive and systematic risk management strategy, and this included a range of activities, you can see them listed there. We invested in a lot of science at different places throughout the food chain to see what sort of control measures we could put in place. One of the major things, and I'll talk about it a bit more, was instituting a national microbiological database, which was a first worldwide.
We also upgraded our biosecurity manual, which is a guidance manual with the help of industry to see what could be done at farm level for control of campylobacter in poultry. And also upgrading all our processing codes which specified the hygiene requirements by regulation that industry needed to meet.
We also invested in risk modelling, and I'll talk about that a bit later. We set a regulatory performance target – another world-first, in terms of a comprehensive risk management strategy. And we also invested quite heavily, at the time, in consumer education, because we knew that the way consumers handled food in their home was a risk factor from the old MAGIC Study. We also set in place a 5-year improvement goal to drive us forward, in terms of measurable gains.
That was a very active strategy through 2010. At that time, MPI was formed, and NZFSA was subsumed into a broader agency. And we carried forward several of those elements through the MPI years, and some of the strategies, you can see they're listed as well, updating some of the regulatory requirements, and working with the regulatory target and the NMD to make it more efficient and effective.
So the National Micro Database – as stated up there, this was a world-leading monitoring system that both industry and government jointly invested in in all poultry slaughterhouses.
We knew that was a major pathway. By this time, we'd established that there was a major contamination problem at the end of primary processing, so we needed to monitor that performance relative to decontamination on all the slaughter premises, and know over time whether we were improving, relative to the interventions on offer.
And there were a range of interventions that could be put in place, and we tested a number of those, in terms of different improvements, in how you dress and eviscerate poultry, how you may decontaminate chlorination of chill tanks – all those sorts of things through the operational research. And the key thing is here that the NMD has joint ownership between industry and the government.
It is a very highly specified system, in terms of accreditation and performance, but largely, industry carry it out, and the government verifies that it is quality data over time. And what we were able to do, as we built up this monitoring data and all of the sort of premises throughout the country, is not only look at long-run performance, but also compare different premises against each other.
And we were able to quite readily see, through a ranking system, those that were performing well and those that weren't performing well. This National Micro Database has been taken up in some shape and form in other countries, but it's fair to say that we still probably have the most comprehensive monitoring system globally, in terms of campylobacter performance in poultry slaughterhouses.
The second thing I mentioned was the regulatory limit, and this was another very innovative approach taken by the regulator – and quite a chancy one, because we were actually regulating performance for the first time for a fresh meat product. And still, globally, no other country has actually done this, where they've set a performance target with very strong regulatory consequences, if industry doesn't come into line following a reasonable time, when they do have a non-compliance, and an opportunity to get back into compliance.
It's based on a carcass rinse program. I don't need to go into the details here, but it has several elements, in terms of enumerating campylobacter on a rinsed carcass so that we actually know the numbers. And secondarily, looking at the prevalence – in other words, the rate of infected birds, which is a different statistic.
And you'll see why a bit later why it's really important to not only know the concentration of campylobacter on the birds – as you would expect, there's probably a high risk associated with that – but we also need to know the rate, the prevalence of infected birds, as well. We also recognized in a pragmatic way that there were a lot of small poultry processors around the country, so we had to accommodate those in a reasonable way, not put too much of a regulatory burden on them, relative to the possible risk they presented.
So they had particular dispensations, relative to the regulatory performance target. At the same time as we've got a regulatory target in place, we've got a National Micro Database to monitor progress. We also continued, in a formal way, with the work through the EpiLab at Massey University, led by Nigel French – the work that was begun by our PhD student – to set up a sentinel site, because we needed to know, over time, were things changing?
You have already seen how people's consumption of chicken markedly changed. There's a lot of other changes, when you monitor and try and improve a communicable disease. People's behaviour in the kitchen changes. Where people live changes, from rural to urban. So there's a lot of things you need to know, if you're going to be a responsible regulator and have a science-based approach.
So this ran from 2005 to 2017 – a major investment for government, in terms of monitoring source attribution. But we really needed to monitor, over time, where were these cases in humans coming from, how much was foodborne versus other sources such as swimming, occupational exposure, water supplies, etc, so we could place interventions where we were going to get the biggest bang for our buck.
So the outcomes of all this work in terms of strategy development, monitoring interventions, and specialist academic investigation. This is the risk management outcome that you can see carrying forward right through to 2018. So the blue bands are effectively the number of cases.
And you can see that, when we put in place the strategy, we started acting over that 2006 to 2007 period, in relation to the poultry industry, we got virtually a 50% reduction in the number of human cases over quite a short time. And that told us that our source attribution work was accurate. The interventions that industry put in place were very positive. And that was a massive decrease, in terms of truncating the epidemic.
You can also see, as we've tracked forward from that time, we haven't made a hell of a lot of progress since. We have plateaued around a number of notifiable cases, and it is obviously an issue for us, as a regulatory agency, to understand why what we have done since that initial period hasn't had the dramatic effect we would wish for, and why we haven't continued to significantly reduce this epidemic of campylobacter in our country.
You can see there some of the modelling work, as well, about the cost of this disease. This is work done through the medical people that have been involved. And an estimated $50 to $70 million per year saved initially via the 50% reduction, but we’re still continuing to bear quite a load, in terms of the burden of human illness.
So we're in the scenario where we've still got quite a problem. And we're looking at our national monitoring database to tell us what's happening, where should we spend our money next? And this is a very interesting slide that shows the power of our NMD. And you can see here the human notifications tracking along in the blue over that period, August '07 right through to December '13.
And you can see the percentage of positive carcasses coming through our poultry slaughterhouses. And no one could deny the association in that pattern around the poultry exposure pathway. The interesting thing is, with our regulatory target, we were looking at both the rate of infected carcasses, so that could be carcasses with only 2,000 – I think element of detection is about 2,000 organisms per carcass.
We're also interested in this idea of high concentration. Did that generate more risk? But you can see the association is not quite the same when we're looking at the high-count carcasses, the second graph. It still mimics the general notification trend, but it doesn't go up and down with the fluctuations year by year that you see from the prevalence rate.
This is another graph from our NMD right up through to 2018 data. And what you can see here is monitoring over time in all our slaughterhouses.
Firstly, the top line, the orange line, shows the number of samples, and this represents the expansion of our industry. As we've regulated through different slaughterhouses and introduced different classes of poultry including turkeys, etc, end-of-lay birds, the number of samples that are actually monitored in types has dramatically increased. And this reflects the scale of domestic consumption of poultry in NZ.
If we look at the middle line, you can see that the percentage of positive samples has actually decreased, and continues to decrease. We've already had our 50% reduction around 2006 2007, due to a dramatic improvement in hygiene practices in slaughterhouses. And industry have continued to work with government to improve process hygiene. And it has resulted in a gradual decrease over time, in terms of the number of infected birds, but we've still got this very high rate, as you saw from the previous graph, plateauing, in terms of human cases.
When we look at the concentration on the birds, a similar pattern – we got a dramatic drop, when we improve process hygiene in the slaughterhouses, but we've only had a gradual improvement since then. But it is quite low now. It's between 1% and 2% high counts. Nevertheless, with these gradual improvements, we are still seeing a high number of foodborne human cases with poultry genotypes.
So this is some recent work from the EpiLab under Nigel French at Massey University, which tells a really interesting story around some of these shifts, and why we need a strong evidence base, if we are going to manage this disease properly. These two graphs, the top two and the bottom two represent two different modelling approaches. And this looks at work from the Massey sentinel site over 2005–2014. And the power of that sentinel site is it contains both urban and rural populations, and mixed populations. And what they've done under this program is look at the attribution over time, firstly, in the first period – 2005 to 2007 – the initial stage of the epidemic. Later on, when we're 50% number of cases down through '08, '14.
And some of the patterns that emerge here are very apparent. If we look, as you can see from rural to urban, across the bottom, you'll see that, rurally, at the time of the peak of the epidemic, about 50% of rural cases were due to poultry molecular genotype strains. As we move into the urban population through the Manawatu sentinel site, you'll see the percentage of poultry source isolates goes way high – 80%. And this reflects the different exposure pathways to poultry through food consumption in those populations, and preparation, and all those other things in the mix.
The blue one is the ruminants. We're not separated here between sheep and beef, but you could see rural people are obviously exposed to contaminated animals, not showing clinical symptoms through their occupation, through rural drinking water supplies that aren't chlorinated, through swimming – all sorts of ways.
So the ruminants in the rural area are causing quite a few cases. When you move into the urban area, on the right-hand side of those graphs, then the proportion of ruminant cases drops remarkably, compared to the ones that come from poultry. 2008–2014, the graphs have shifted, but largely the same pattern.
We've obviously got lesser numbers of poultry, because we've had a 50% halving, so proportionately, the rural the ruminants look higher. But nevertheless, we've still got quite a distinct difference between cases in rural settings compared to urban settings. And the bottom set just represent a different approach to modelling.
So what have we done over the intervening time between this initial level of success and the subsequent plateauing? We recognized in 2015 that we had to do more. We recognized this plateauing wasn't acceptable, in terms of what was still a very high incidence of campylobacter on a worldwide scale.
So we set in place an improvement target of 10% over 2015 to 2020 – modest, not great, but at that stage, we didn't quite know what we were going to do to further improve the pathways, in terms of minimizing exposure, particularly to poultry. And clearly, it's very difficult to do much, in terms of the pathways associated with ruminants because all of our evidence was that wasn't foodborne. That was due to other exposures.
We also had a big wake-up call in the Havelock North waterborne event, which I'm sure you all read about – 2016 I think it was. And there were up to 5,000 cases of campylobacteriosis over a very short period due to a contaminated water supply that hadn't been chlorinated, and grazing animals had contaminated that water.
And so this illustrates part of the conundrum we're faced with, that this is not all about foodborne, it's not all about poultry. But as a regulator looking after the food chain, we need to know proportionately where we're going to get the best bang for our buck.
You'll see, after setting up this relatively modest target, we report back to our food safety advisory board every 6 months. And we've only been able to report trending in and out of this 10% reduction over the last 3 or 4 years, as you all have seen from that human notification graph. So we're not really there, in terms of continuing the significant improvement we need. Another issue we need to raise, again, raised by our academic partners at Massey, was the emergence of anti-microbial resistance for the first time on any level in strains isolated from poultry.
And the emergence of the strain ST 6964, only identified because of the very sophisticated genetic modelling that's done at Massey – and again, they're world-leading partner in this work – they were able to map, through the sentinel site, the spread of this new strain.
It's presumed, from its genotype fingerprint, to have come from China. It spread very rapidly through poultry suppliers in the Manawatu area. It's spread wider. There’s this current study going on as to how that could possibly happen in a vertically integrated system. And also, we're at the stage now where about 10% of human isolates are this anti-microbial resistant strain.
Fortunately for us, even though it's resistant to tetracycline and fluoroquinolone, they are not the drugs of choice and New Zealand, where you have invasive campylobacteriosis. Also, it is a general medical principle that, for diarrhoea, you don't treat it with antibiotics, so probably more than 90% of cases aren't treated.
So in a way, we're dodging a bullet with this strain, but it does represent how things change, not only in terms of exposure of the consumer, but also in terms of the organism itself and its pathogenicity and anti-microbial resistance.
So I mentioned risk modelling as one of our investments, in terms of our strategy. And risk models are where we want to take all the available data we have, and we need to predict what might happen in the future. And always there's some uncertainty. It's quantitative. It requires high science, but it can give you a very good roadmap as to what you need to do, in terms of setting a performance target and where you can focus in the food chain to get the best benefit from the money spent.
So we can look at either the whole system and decide if we reduce the contamination rate, for instance, in poultry, in birds presented to the consumer – what's the benefit, in terms of risk reduction – or we can look at a particular part of the food chain, such as biosecurity on farm, primary processing, retail and distribution, even consumer habits and handling in the kitchen – and estimate what proportion of the damage is being done at each step.
Obviously, once we get this information, we need to work closely with industry about what are pragmatic interventions. There's not a lot of point in modelling risk reductions and then finding out it's going to cost you $1 million to achieve a certain gain in one part of the food chain, when, in another part, you may be able to spend $100,000 and achieve the same gain, e.g. through consumer education.
So here's a little modelling output that we've just recently completed, and this looks at modelling broiler contamination and human foodborne campylobacteriosis in the simplest sense. And again, this brings forward this notion of the power of our NMD, and the importance of knowing not only the number of infected birds going through, but the level of contamination.
And you can see here a predicted notification rate, when things change over our current contamination spectrum that we have with poultry. Along the top line, 20% of birds are positive at our enumeration target of greater than 3.78 – our high count – and 2% of carcasses… I'm sorry, across the top, they're positive, but they're under our high count.
And down the side, they're positive, but they're above our high count. And you can see, if we've got 20% and 2%, we're predicting 40 cases, in a very conservative model, per 100,000 people are getting sick from poultry-borne campylobacteriosis. This is a very conservative model. The current rate, we estimate about 80 per 100,000.
But nevertheless, the relativity here is in the illustration. If we can drop that carcass positive rate to 10%, and we can keep the number of high-count birds above 3.78 to 1%, we can have that human campylobacteriosis foodborne rate. So this tells us, at least here's a marker, a stake in the ground to what we could aim for, if it's pragmatic and possible, in terms of reducing further poultry contamination.
Now, the source-assigned case control study, which we are just writing up at the moment, has really been the culmination of the last 2 years of putting a lot of this data together I've talked about through ongoing sentinel site at Massey, our NMD monitoring. Even though we're not doing much operational research at the moment, compared to in the past, there are a couple of studies that have gone forward. One's a chlorination trial with industry around higher levels of chlorination in chill tanks. We've invested in a source-assigned case control study which has looked at particularly urban and rural populations, with a focus on Auckland.
We've suspected, with all this data that shows us, we've still got an intractable problem and have still got a strong poultry association. Why is that? So we've spent more than $1 million on the study over the last 2 years, and we're just writing it up. While it's been funded by us, again it represents that cross-stakeholder nature of what we're doing.
We've worked with ESR as a contract provider with Massey and EpiLab, who have done a lot of the analytical work around source attribution, and the industry, as well, and consumer interest groups, in terms of designing the investigative studies, and of course, the Ministry of Health that have done all of the epidemiological follow-up for our cases, which are about 800 across the study area – so a massive amount of work.
And we can't release the results as yet, but it is showing, in fact, that poultry is clearly a major player ongoing, in terms of this human illness problem we are faced with. We will also be able to get from the study not only the risk factors. As an example, even though you know a food pathway such as poultry-associated human cases, is it barbecuing in summer which is a high risk factor? Is that the people that aren't preparing their food in the kitchen themselves, and are buying ready-to-eat, that is another risk factor in poultry food exposure pathway? All of these things we've got great faith that this study is going to really help us in directing where we go next, in terms of trying to manage this problem.
So as you can probably guess from all this, with our new food strategy being launched, and Bryan's sitting anxiously on the edge of his seat, we are really rethinking what we need to do here, in terms of foodborne campylobacteriosis.
Our notification rates are still high on an international basis. We are billing ourselves as a world-leading food safety agency, and we have a food safety issue to deal with here. So there's a real incentive to rethink our strategy and our investment with our industry, consumer, and academic partners into how we can improve the situation.
As we've said, we've halved the rates initially, but improvements since then have been modest. And we do need to, as I said, work with our partners and see how we can best manage what is still our priority foodborne disease in New Zealand.
The other issue that comes from all this is, should we set another performance target? Do we need to goad ourselves forward, sign up to something, and say, yip, we're going to work hard to achieve this and monitor progress with our 2 world-class systems? One's the NMD in poultry. The second is the Human Notifiable Disease Database managed by ESR for the Ministry of Health, which is a high-quality and accurate system.
So a refreshed risk management strategy and work plan for campy. We will obviously continue through this process that I've explained, in terms of the tools we have available, but we will always base our next steps on science and risk assessment. We can't do random things that we think are going to work, and then sit back and see if they do work, and whether or not we achieve our performance target.
We may change. We are in the process of changing, in a minor way, the regulatory performance target, because if we are looking at a target around reducing human illness, obviously we've got to look to performance of industry, in terms of contributing to that.
We know that we need to look at new social science approaches, because one of the key risk factors in campylobacteriosis in all countries is consumer behaviour and awareness – how they manage the food they buy in the supermarket, even in terms of packaging, what they do when they get at home, how they unwrap, and how they cross-contaminate on working surfaces, and present food.
The UKFSA – I was over there recently talking to them about collaborative work – they've just established, as an example, a 12-person social science team to look at this part of the food chain, not only for campylobacter, but for other foodborne diseases. Because it's that understanding you need. It's not enough just telling people you should do this. They need to understand, not only get the message, understand it and act to it. And there's a lot of social science investment needed to achieve that gain.
A refocus on biosecurity – we did a lot of early work in our strategy around biosecurity on farm, and we found that it was very, very difficult to exclude campylobacteriosis from broiler chicken. There's a lot of pathways for entry at farm level, despite a very high level of biosecurity, for a range of reasons, because of all these carriers of campylobacter that exist in the environment – water, wild birds, people's overalls, whatever it is. And so we went away from trying to control it at farm level to trying to reduce it during processing level.
There's a rethink going on in Europe, in particular, around this at the moment. They are claiming gains to be had from higher biosecurity status, and we need to look at that, in terms of our risk management approach. Another thing that changes – it's not only the bug, it's not only the people and the pathways –it's the diagnostic methodologies used to monitor.
And we're moving more and more out of a culture environment for notifiable disease cases into a PCR or molecular environment, because it's better and easier for labs to do that. So we need to understand, if we're looking at these long-run trends, that we're genuinely comparing data with data that's matching.
So the bottom line there – I hope this doesn't make Bryan nervous – but we are really committing to refreshing our risk management strategy and setting a new aspirational target for foodborne campylobacteriosis. We do believe there's a lot more work to do. We're not sure exactly how we're going to get there, but it will be evidence-based, it'll be reasoned, and we will be monitoring our performance. Thank you.
[End of transcript]
Robyn Kruk: It's interesting on Steven's paper, which is equally relevant to the Australian context. Because we've looked at, with some envy, at the work you've done and successes you've had – the partnerships, in relation to campy. But the whole question about whether setting a target actually – how influential that was, in terms of changing the behaviour – and that's one of the discussions that they're having around the policy table, in terms of ministers, at the moment, for the broader approach, as well too.
I mean, the learnings are quite significant here. And what's impressive is just that the quality of the evidence base that goes into working out what is going to have the most impact, in terms of changing outcomes – on one hand, it's scary to see, but on the other hand, it's also incredibly reassuring to see the depth of the analysis, in relation to looking at the vectors and the attribution of what the major issues are and where you're going to get the maximum bang for buck.
So I take comfort in it. I'll look at my chicken again a bit differently tonight, but that's not a bad thing, because the awareness issue is a really significant one – what you can do in your own home.
Audience question: Paul Harris, I'm a food technologist. My question is for Steve concerning sous-vide playing around with some minimally processed food. Certainly concerned about sous-viding chicken. Are there any guidelines that we're looking at for temperature/time for sous-vide processing of chilled chicken – starting from chilled chicken, rather than from frozen chicken?
Steve Hathaway: Yeah, a good question. And there are guidelines available around sous-vide. It does throw up a question, and a bit of a challenge, at the moment, for us, and that's with duck. And we don't have guidelines for duck, but the best chefs in town will want duck that's very barely cooked and we are finding that ducks are highly contaminated with campylobacter. So that's one of the little operational research projects we're working on at the moment, as to what's an appropriate time/temperature handling guideline for duck versus chilled poultry in the restaurant. But in answer to your question, there are guidelines available for chilled chicken. We need to extend them and massage them for specialist duck.
Audience question: Hi. [Inaudible] group quality systems managers from Sanford. I was just wondering the rates of campylo notifications versus the world. Have you compared that to the amount of chicken New Zealanders consume versus the rest of the world?
Steve Hathaway: No, not directly. There has been some work done, but all I can say is that what we're experiencing here is pretty much being experienced in most Western countries. And their notifications system is probably not as accurate and as aware as ours. We believe ours genuinely reflects human cases.
Medics in New Zealand are very, very highly aware of this disease, and it's notified everywhere. I would assume that poultry – fresh meat poultry consumption's going up in other countries, similar to ours, but direct comparison I don't know.
Bryan Wilson, Deputy Director-General, New Zealand Food Safety: So I've got one question, Steve. What's the reporting rate, do you think, of campylobacter illness?
Steve Hathaway: So if we take the general pattern – and it varies with, you know, different experts will have a different view on the true rate of infection of gastrointestinal disease versus the notified rate – I believe it's something like 12 times. Some medical professionals will say the actual rate of infection is 12 times the notified rate. I wouldn't quote that as a fact, because different people have different views.
But to have a notified rate, we need a culture. And there needs to be a submission, and it needs to be so the whole lab follow-through is there. And a lot of GPs will, with the diarrhoea, they won't specifically go to a cause. They will just treat it as a general diarrhoea. So I think you can work on 11 or 12 times the notified rate is probably the true rate.
Audience question: David Bayliss, food safety consultant. Just a general question on New Zealand food safety. We've had speakers from FSANZ talking about food safety. What is the relationship between FSANZ and the new MPI represented by New Zealand Food Safety? Is there going to be an amalgamating of regulations, given that the Food Standards Code –
Bryan Wilson: I'll have a first cut to cover this. So New Zealand Food Safety remains part of MPI. New Zealand Food Safety is the key relationship between New Zealand and FSANZ, so we participate in the FSANZ processes. We provide recommendations to our government at the end of a FSANZ process about what to do with it, and almost always we agree.
Occasionally, there will be something where New Zealand will want to have a different standard than Australia, but that's quite rare. Organizationally, there's no proposal to change the way we relate to FSANZ or the engagement processes. So the FSANZ labelling and composition processes are a core part of the standards which we enforce, as New Zealand Food Safety and MPI.
David Bayliss: And do you perceive that the standards that are part of the Food Standards Code that relate to food safety – would they remain separate for Australia and covered by the Food Act?
Bryan Wilson: So the food standards that FSANZ sets are almost always across Australia and New Zealand. So we have a common standard. The enforcement agencies are different, because we're in different countries. Sometimes there's variation in that, but it's not hugely significant. Does that answer the question?
David Bayliss: I think it does, but it's just – New Zealand has the food regulations, which cover the food safety, whereas FSANZ has the Food Standards Code –
Bryan Wilson: So the code sets the standards for composition and labelling. Other standards are set in New Zealand, like standards about do you have to register? Yes, you do. Who with? Councils or MPI. What processes do you need to put in place in order to gain and maintain registration? That's all set here in New Zealand by New Zealand Food Safety.
Essentially, at the highest level, you need a plan, and you should be able to demonstrate that you can comply with the plan and deliver safe food. That's what the standards and the registration-setting is about. That's all New Zealand-based. Australians have slightly different systems to do that. They're sort of comparable, but they are different, and they're run out of Australia.
Glen Neal, General Manager from Food Standards Australia New Zealand: Yeah, so chapters 3 and 4 of the code are Australia only, and there're the rules that MPI sets. As Bryan’s indicated there's no proposal to look at merging those things. But certainly, when both countries develop standards in this area, we do pay attention to each other for the purpose of figuring out who's got the best ideas, but also for the purpose of ensuring that we remain in touch with each other to ensure that our trade remains to be facilitated.
Steve Hathaway: And just on things like infectious disease, like campylobacter, New Zealand and Australia work separately around those sort of public health issues and regulation. So the infectious disease side of it is still relatively independent, but we still talk to each other, obviously, in terms of intelligence.
Robyn Kruk: That's where the benefits are. I wasn't joking, when I was saying earlier that, wearing my health hat originally, we looked very seriously at what New Zealand was doing, because you'd been leaders in this area for some time. We've got the traction. So there are a lot of discussions underway at all times between our jurisdictions. And thinking early – and this is the leadership, again, of Bryan and his team looking at what really can be further alliances on the food safety front – the research front, and areas like that.
But both of us have – the strength of having a notifiable disease mechanism behind it is incredibly significant. And that's where China looks at with envy, in terms of your whole risk assessment mechanisms. They’re so much strengthened by having the real-time ability to make judgments about the impact of various strategies can't be understated. I told you it was a complex system. I'm sorry.
Glen Neal: And maybe – if I could just touch on an aspect which kind of brings both the subjects together, and that is I was keenly interested in Steve's presentation, in terms of the potential next steps for New Zealand's control of campylobacter. Because one thing that I was looking for is whether or not MPI is thinking about potentially label changes for consumers.
And so that scenario, that would really show how the system works because, if there was to be a label change, then that is something that New Zealand could well explore in conjunction with Australians. And if Australians think that that's a good idea, and they may well do that, because, just as an aside, the campy chart that Steve showed which highlights that New Zealand's world champs at campylobacter, there's a similar chart that's wheeled around in Australia.
And that shows that Australia, compared to New Zealand, are world champs at getting salmonellosis. So both of those, it could be argued, might be better controlled through changes to food labelling, in which case there would be, potentially, a joint exploration of whether or not the code should change for both countries.
Audience question: Cecilia from Foodstuffs. Just in relation to the plan on consumer education, what sort of plan, budget, and ETA do you have for that? Because I believe that would benefit a lot, in terms of addressing this issue.
Bryan Wilson: So we're working through that at the moment. We don't have a specific plan. You'll see, as part of our consultation on the food safety strategy, there's a section on consumer awareness. We are very interested in what you've got to say. We think that's an area where we have probably under-invested over the last few years, and we need to do more on it – so thinking through what exactly that will look like, at the moment.
Robyn Kruk: Can I just touch on the whole issue of the consumer aspects? We're a skill-based board, and certainly one of our members over the past few years has been from Choice, so a very strong consumer aspect. So a lot of our discussions are increasingly – particularly with FSANZ's expertise growing in the behavioural science aspect – is what works.
Will labelling actually change consumer behaviour? I mean, you know yourself this is a very opinion-rich time in this space, and particularly in the food space. We were talking about green tea this morning and the impacts of green tea. So to actually – to get a good understanding of what is the most significant driver for behavioural change is a very significant gain in this space.
But again, it comes down to, is that going to be more effectively done on labelling, or is that going to be done through other mechanisms to actually get that traction from a consumer perspective? So that is increasingly internationally also an area where I think some major gains need to be had.
And the issue of awareness – we all talk about an informed public, and we pride ourselves by seeing our social media reach expanding, but we're not anywhere near the reach of Pete Evans and the paleo diet. So a lot of the challenges in the public health arena, but in the food safety arena more generally, is getting a head around what actually will change behaviour.
What will make me do things differently in the kitchen or my handling of food, from point of pickup to actually home, to reduce some of those issues? And in Australia, the salmonella deaths were really significant in getting a heightened awareness. Did we take full advantage of using that as a behaviour-change issue? These are the things that we're learning, as well.
Bryan Wilson: So while we're on labelling, can I just do a totally unscientific survey? I've done this a few times. When you guys are in the supermarket buying something, who looks at the label?
From the audience: Tragic.
Bryan Wilson: So that's quite interesting. I did that with my team, and I got the same answer. I do a little bit – not very much. My family doesn't at all.
Robyn Kruk: Could I – just to tell an anecdote – I was listening to talkback radio at 4 o'clock one morning, driving late, and the question was labelling, the nutritional panels. And you get the truck drivers and all of the insomniacs at that hour of night, so it's a rarefied audience anyway.
But the messages were so salient. Most people actually looked at the labels that rang in. And they said, well, we don't know whether, you know, is 5 a good number, or is 5 a bad number, and what does a bad number look like, and what happens – it was really quite interesting. So there was a higher reach of labelling, which is consistent with our own work.
But the issue is, is the information that people are reading sufficiently meaningful for them to change behaviour? And that's why I focus on the behavioural sciences, as well. That's why, whenever we meet with industry, one of the questions we ask is, what are your studies showing, as well too?
So to get the benefit of a growing knowledge base across the non-government sector, across all sectors to see where people are actually – what are the drivers to change behaviour? And I think that is, ultimately, a significant determinant in all of these safety issues.
Glen Neal: Can I just add something to that? One of the aspects of food labelling relates to recalls. So Robyn mentioned that about – we had, in Australia, last year about 100 food recalls. 50% of those were due to undeclared allergens. And 50% – we now go back and do some root cause analysis with the companies concerned, and we've identified that 50% of the undeclared allergen issues are due to simply, on the line in the factory, the wrong product is put into the wrong package.
So if you want to – if there's a take-home message for those of you who work on the factory floor, pay attention to packaging and making sure the right product goes in the right package.
Robyn Kruk: And there is a dollar value attached to that straight away, I believe. So, quite amazing.
Audience question: On that packaging topic, in regards to self-packaging, when you walk into a supermarket, take your own containers, are you guys looking into the whole fact that – some kind of labelling strategy around what people are actually utilizing, what containers they bring into the store, and how they're going away with information to let them know what's going on?
Robyn Kruk: Mark, I feel that’s your question.
Mark (audience member): Thank you for that, Robyn.
This is consumer-driven behaviour at the retail end. We can work with what the consumer wants, but we also need to work with the risk-based risk assessment. How do we control the hazard that suddenly is being introduced?
We don't have an education piece for customers. We have signage in the store. We control it by assessing the container they bring in. Is it visibly clean? If not, we'll reject it. We will also do an extra clean. But I've got to acknowledge that that doesn't make it sterile, so we do rely on the consumer. And that could all change, if we have suddenly a big issue. Then, sorry, consumers, we won't follow what you're looking for. But it's a changing space, as you pointed out, Robyn.
Robyn Kruk: Can I touch – we had quite a major session in Homebush last year with a very broadly based group, as well. And there was a lot of discussion about the expectations of the millennials. We had a nice different age group. I think I was the outrider in terms of age. But it was a very interesting discussion for regulators to see what the expectations were of government, the expectations of the individual of government, and the whole tension about more regulation and less regulation.
I think that's one of the underpinnings of what we are looking at, as well too, in terms of the proportionality. But there is no doubt that we are getting increasing requests for a whole range of issues about source of food – the whole ethical dimension. There are a whole range of issues that people raised, quite legitimately, because they're concerned through consultations that have to do with a range of other things than straight food safety – where they're sourced in the instance of palm oil, a whole range of those issues.
So the complexity of the consumer group and their expectations is something that we do not underestimate in any way. Mark's hit the nail on the head as well, too. There's a whole range of different consumer preferences in shopping and retail outlets, and that sort of stuff that go with that, as well.
[End of transcript]
1. Food regulation now and in the future
This lecture focused on Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). FSANZ develops food standards for Australia and New Zealand.
The Food Standards Code is enforced by state and territory departments, agencies, and local councils in Australia, the Ministry for Primary Industries in New Zealand, and the Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources for food imported into Australia.
Robyn discusses the bi-national food regulation system and the key drivers affecting the system, the context for modernisation, FSANZ’s response to change, and what the future holds for the food standards body.
This topic focuses on the foodborne illness Campylobacteriosis and explores the historical and current challenges posed to food safety experts.
Campylobacter is a bacterium that can be found in raw chicken meat, offal, raw milk and raw milk products, and other foods. It is the most common foodborne disease in New Zealand, with chicken meat the most common source of foodborne Campylobacter.
Although historically New Zealand has one of the highest rates of notified foodborne Campylobacteriosis in the world, it is important to realise that there are differences between countries in the way data is collected and that this makes it difficult to compare rates of illness without in-depth studies of factors that determine the rate.
New Zealand Food Safety has prioritised our work around Campylobacter to further reduce illness, and our research around the different sources of Campylobacter and how people get infected.
Dr Steve Hathaway (chief food safety scientist, New Zealand Food Safety)
Steve has a long involvement in food safety research and the development of regulatory food control systems and standards, initially as director of programme development in the New Zealand Food Safety Authority, through to his current position as the chief food safety scientist for New Zealand Food Safety. He has more than 250 publications in science journals and conference proceedings.
Robyn Kruk, AO (chairperson, Food Standards Australia New Zealand)
Robyn has extensive experience as chief executive of national and state policy, regulatory and service delivery agencies, including New South Wales (NSW) Health, NSW Premier and Cabinet and national and state environment agencies. She established and served as inaugural chief executive/commissioner of the National Mental Health Commission.
Glen Neal (general manager, Food Standards Australia New Zealand)
Glen is currently the general manager of the Food Standards Branch, which is responsible for setting labelling, nutrition and product safety standards for both countries. He is also responsible for oversight of the agencies’ finances. He has extensive experience in food safety both in New Zealand and Australia.
Bryan Wilson (deputy director-general, New Zealand Food Safety)
Bryan is the deputy director-general for New Zealand Food Safety. He is responsible for the Ministry for Primary Industries’ regulatory activities and functions across the food safety and primary production systems. Previously Bryan has worked in regulation across a range of industries in New Zealand and Australia.
Video – Building confidence in New Zealand's food system (1:08.32)
Nadine Tunley, CE Oha Honey: Good morning.
So prior to coming today, I didn't really know my audience because I hadn't had a chance to check that out, sorry. But I'm quite pleased to see that I think a number of you are industry-based. I'm not entirely sure how many are international or domestically focused. For me, as Bryan said, I'm currently the CEO of Oha Honey, but have a number of other roles in agribusiness across different companies in New Zealand.
And from me, you will get probably the realities of what food safety systems means in an operational perspective. And though Paul sort of was apprehensive about his introduction, it's always really important to get technical. And it's really, for me, today I thought, oh god, I hope I'm not talking to a bunch of scientists. So it's quite important to hear both sides of the equation.
So when I got asked to do this topic today, I did a quick, as everyone does, a quick Google search and thought, food safety systems. And ironically, the very first thing that popped up for me was over 500 New Zealanders per day get food poisoning. I thought, oh my god, that's 180,000 people a year. I found that quite high, and I wasn't quite sure. And interestingly, Campylobacter where Bryan just said “I've had that and that was the most horrendous experience of my life.” Worse than childbirth, I thought.
But interestingly, it's a big number. If that is correct, that's a big number. So that then caused me to do a little bit more research. And the numbers do vary. They do jump around quite a bit. But it does appear there's not less than 135 New Zealanders a week getting some form of probably reasonably significant food poisoning.
So that's a lot, which takes you into thinking about food safety and, as a person, what we think that means, let alone the systems that protect us from any of the issues around it. All of the things that surround that – and I was glad to hear Bryan sort of say, you know, controversial stuff, but also when we talk food safety, particularly from a perspective like mine, we very quickly go into topics like GMO, GE, organics versus conventional growing, OMARs and ICPRs, being overseas market access requirements which are required for food products of a certain type out of New Zealand and importing country phytosanitary requirements. So there's a lot of systems and a lot of complexity for us out there.
So my question to talk to you about, does trust in food safety systems mean the same for different segments of society? For me, it was about breaking that question down a little bit to what is a food safety system, and then the segments of society.
So prior to the 1970s, food safety was not politically, scientifically, or socially an issue, or even considered really. One of the earliest food safety incidences took place in 944 AD in France. 40,000 people died from ergotism. That's a bit of a serial kind of issue. However, back then, no one referred to this as a food scare, a food hazard, or even a moral panic.
The first time that food scare appeared in media, print media, was in the mid-1980s around Tylenol, which were tablets being laced with cyanide. But now, we've moved on, we call that bioterrorism. This means food safety systems have really only evolved over the last 50 years. And whether you're a farmer, a consumer, a retail, or a vertically integrated enterprise, food safety systems will impact you. They touch on every part of society because human beings need to eat to sustain life.
These two pictures intrigued me when I looked at them. The one on this side, from my perspective, because I do have the privilege of working with the actual producers right back at the farms, that's how they would probably often look at it, that you go from the cow or the fishing boat, and what your responsibility is in that system is to make sure, by the time it hits the restaurants, the retailers, and the consumers, that it's a safe product. And it's really hard. Those people put a lot of faith in everybody along that chain, particularly through that distribution and processing power.
On the far left-hand side is more what we deal with every day in the business. And if I was to talk to one of my farmers about HACCPs or ISOs or GFSs, they would be like – or BRC, even, some of them don't even understand that sort of safety component. So it is quite a broad topic, and something that's difficult for many to get their head around.
Interestingly, when we talk about different segments of society, as well, we have to look – I think we fail to look quite often to our younger generations. We forget about diversity of ethnicities, religion. There are so many things that are actually involved in that question. And from my perspective, I thought the best way to look at it was as a CEO of a food company, someone who's also a director on a number of agribusiness boards, a mother, and a consumer.
So when I first started to think about the topic and doing this presentation to you today, I just actually wrote down a whole lot of stuff. And interestingly, when I mapped it this was what stood out. And Fonterra, unfortunately, is up there. But again, for me, milk products, olive oil, and honey are the three highest adulterated products in the globe. Milk products, obviously, for obvious reasons is up there as number one. And olive oil for a long time has been around and been adulterated. Manuka honey is quite new to that environment, but we produce roughly and export around 8,000 tons annually, and 30,000 tons is sold globally. So that tells us how bad it is.
One of the other things, like the fact that food safety and stuff like that was not really discussed prior to the 1970s, is the massive shift in media. Social media, print media, everything, we're saturated with information at our fingertips every minute of the day. For those on Twitter and all of the other apps that sit out there currently, it is actually pushed at you, depending on what topics or things that you are involved in, and come to your attention quite quickly.
The other thing that stands out in this for me, particularly, was the weighting of different countries. Interestingly, New Zealand doesn't feature strongly in it. But if you look through Europe, Netherlands, Belgium, those countries have had a lot of issues for a lot longer, population-driven the majority of the time. China, funnily enough, was smaller. And that was maybe just because of that stuff I was reading through and capturing and taking notes on. But overall, no matter what part of society you're from, you're absolutely assured that's going to affect you in some way, shape, or form.
When I asked the question to a number of people and my staff, actually, I thought I'd go out there, I'd do a bit of a survey: what does food safety mean? I've got four PhD people on my staff, as well as right through to people who are in hives and in the factory. And interestingly enough, not one person really had any concerns in New Zealand. Pretty much the common answer was, I just assume it's taken care of.
And I sort of thought, that's interesting. So I probed that a little bit further. They work – we have a processing, bottling plant. We do everything from hive to market. And when I tested my staff, not that I overly want to disclose this, but I look at our food safety habits, and the hive and things like that, and sometimes, I would say, that – I would probably say they're questionable – haven't come out of horticulture, which is a much more matured industry, into honey in the last 2 and 1/2 years. It's got a long way to go.
And that's one thing that puts us at risk, often, is that, in New Zealand, where new, young, fledgling industries come into food, particularly export, because we export generally 80% to 90% of our products because we don't have the population to consume, any new products that we put out there puts everyone at risk. And that's why Fonterra probably sits up there so strongly. I'll show you some stats after this. But they are the front face for New Zealand in a lot of places. So when Fonterra has an issue, we all have an issue.
But with new products coming online – and Manuka Honey is one of them – if we start having issues, then we cause every other primary sector a problem. So it's really difficult because we do need to collectively understand the importance of this topic. And when you're trying to survive and you're a small operator, sometimes it's hard to have that big-picture thinking.
Interestingly, if I asked the same question on China about what food safety means, or parts of Europe, and definitely the USA, I'd get a very different response. And again, that is because of things that have happened in their countries and things that they have become quite sensitive to. And China, particularly, is big on food safety. From our marketing department, one of the biggest sort of areas that we use to promote and to sell our products into China is safety, the word “safe”. We can be trusted, and our food is safe. So yeah, right down at the basic level of sales, food safety is critical for all of us.
These are some of the things that have happened internationally right back, sort of – 1981 was as far as I thought we needed to go back, but because of the olive oil discussion. 1,200 people died from tainted oil that was colza oil, which was sold as a substitute for olive oil. But the impact that had, that incident, on the sales of olive oil was substantial. And it lasted for a considerable amount of time. So that's the problem. Whenever we have an issue arise, you've always got to remember that it's a long time until we get over it.
Mad cow disease, funnily enough, that still haunts a lot of people for different reasons. I don't know if you're blood donors in this room, but if you were in the UK for certain years, of which I was lucky enough to be one of those people, you're actually not suitable to donate blood in New Zealand. So you know, these things have long-lasting impacts.
Perrier water, which we all know about, they had to recall 160 million bottles around the world at the time when they had their issue. The cost of doing recalls of product is substantial, and often destroys businesses. So it is something we want to avoid at all costs. Not only that, the damage to your brand is considerable.
Chickengate was an interesting one. I hadn't really heard of that, so I was quite intrigued when I started to look into it. But again, you know, the impacts from those kind of things. That egg industry today even in Europe, people… I rang a couple of people and had a conversation – they still remember it, and they're still affected by how they purchase chicken and eggs in Europe.
Coca-Cola, they had several recalls, 3 alone in 1999. Again, it was just poor, probably not well-considered practices that were occurring, and how those cross-contaminations of some of those practices that you would never have expected should have affected the product did, particularly the treatment of the wooden pallets. You would think, how does Coca-Cola get affected? But again, when there's poor practices in place, cross-contamination in food can happen very easily.
The one at the bottom where 30 Italians died from bottled water contamination – the police suspected on that one that that was injected into those bottles under the plastic caps. We've moved into a different environment now, where bioterrorism is real. It happens. There's a lot actually around bioterrorism, but we're not here particularly to discuss that. But it is a massive part of the food safety systems that we all have to take into consideration now. So it's a big issue.
Closer to home, everyone – well, I shouldn't say everyone – but most New Zealanders who are involved in food, the melamine issue for Fonterra was significant. It had a lot… and it still… people still refer to that topic and that issue that occurred at that point in time. These, unfortunately, were all things with Fonterra. And when we have a company that is as sizable as Fonterra with the global reach, whenever we have issues in that company, it affects all of us. And so we have to just be really aware that the responsibility that sits on every company and every one of us is quite extensive.
So that brings me back to the question at hand. For me, in my horticulture experience, food safety is so broad, and society and the different people that are affected by it is equally as broad. So it's quite a challenging topic. We had a situation where a chemical company changed a recipe of one of the sprays that we used in our orchards, only about 3 years ago now.
And unfortunately, when people go to media, if they're not well versed and don't quite understand how they should be answering questions or thinking of the broader implications of their statements, it can be devastating. The chemical company who were taking a very responsible stance decided to get out there and take blame. And so yes, we've made a change, and it hasn't been great. And we've ended up with contaminated product.
The moment they said that, that just rippled across the globe. And no one wanted to purchase New Zealand apples or pears. All of our markets were ringing in left, right, and centre, saying, look, we're cancelling orders. There's nothing we want to be taking out of New Zealand this year.
The impact of that on us at that point in time could have been in excess of $500 million as an industry. So we had to jump on it very quickly and try and reverse any damage that had been done from those announcements. And no one's at fault. It is just that, as long as we haven't discussed where we were at and the cycle of issues, and we haven't got good systems in place to make sure that we're managing and dealing with all those situations, the impact can be considerable.
One of the other ones that probably has always resonated and sat with me for a long time – and to this day, I still shake my head when I think about it – I was offshore, in markets dealing with something. And I got a call from a staff member back here in New Zealand to say to me, “We have a container of fruit that's being declined for Taiwan, because the residues are too high. We've pulled that back, and we're just going to stick it on the domestic market.” And I was on the end of the phone, and I said, “Sorry? What was that?” And they said, “We're just going to put it on to the domestic market.”
And I said, “Do you just want to pause for a second there and think about what you've just said to me?” The staff member's like, “It's been declined for Taiwan. We've got no option. We're just going to stick it on the domestic market.” So I said, “So we're prepared to accept that Taiwan will not accept this container of fruit. If we had shipped the container, it would have another 4 weeks on the water. So the residue would continue to dissipate. But we will put that on the market in New Zealand tomorrow and sell it to our own consumers, including children, and that's OK?”
And I could just – there's deadly silence on the end of the phone. And the reality was that they just really hadn't thought that through. And their reaction response to me was, “But we can.” And that is correct. We could. We could. Our rules often, internationally, are far clearer, are far easier, to understand than they are for New Zealand. And just because we can doesn't mean we should. So clearly, that container did not go out to market.
But this is the problem. We've all got a responsibility. And sometimes, when systems are in place, and depending who is interpreting them, if they're not absolutely clear, then they'll just do whatever they need to do. Because they operate. It's how their brains are wired often to think, when they're on the sales and marketing area or logistics supply chain space. We have an issue. Let's deal with it.
So if we don't have some good, robust rules in place for our own domestic market, that can cause us problems, as well. And we don't. To be fair, in all the food products I deal in, our rules and regulations aren't quite as clear. And that's just because we are, whether we like it or not, heavily focused on international markets in New Zealand. Because of population demand is… we produce enough of 40 million or just over 40 million people now. 4 million people are never going to consume that.
So I think one thing for food safety and society – it doesn't matter who “society” is. Our job as food producers is to be the ones to take the responsibility to make sure it's right for everyone. It will always have a different meaning for people out there. It will always have a much stronger meaing usually for mothers of young children. Definitely, when I was a mother of young children, I had a slightly more caring thought about what I was putting in my children's mouths. Now that they're big, ugly 20-odd-year-olds, I don't really care. They should understand and know, because I've brought them up to understand that.
But yeah, even if you question general New Zealanders out on the street and said, do you understand where all of your produce comes from that you consume? What countries, whether we bring them into New Zealand, and we treat them with irradiation or any other thing, most people just don't think about it. They just assume that we're in New Zealand. It's nice and safe, and we in this room are doing everything that needs to be done to protect them. And largely, we often do.
But from a person like myself, who works with an international focus, sometimes you just – I assume those things are happening, because it's not my area of focus. So yeah, does trust in food safety systems mean the same for different areas of society? No, it definitely doesn't. But it should. And we should make sure it does. And I think, if we end up looking at the fact that we do have more areas now where people are trying to bioterrorist type things, that's something we're going to need to step up for even more so. Thank you.
[End of transcript]
Paul Dansted, Director Food Regulations, New Zealand Food Safety: Thank you, Bryan. I don't consider myself an expert, actually. The interesting thing is, the longer you spend in any particular area – and I've probably been about 20-odd years in food – is you realize how much you don't know. And there's so much I don't know.
So I'm going to be talking about food contamination. And I was interested to see, on Nadine's slide – she did that word cloud up front. Contamination was one of those words that really stood out. It's a great word. It's one of those ones that just triggers a response in people. There is no way you can use the word “contamination” in a good way.
And I'm going to talk a little bit about communication, risk perception, and so on, focusing on communication. So in approximate order, I'm going to be talking a little bit about food contamination. We've got largely a technical and industry audience, I'm probably not going to be telling you anything you don't know.
I want to talk a little bit about risk perception, which is something that's of interest to me. And Nadine referred to it obliquely a few times. And I think it's critical for all of us. I am going to circle back to the needles in strawberries incident, because I think that's a great case study for what we all have to deal with, and then finish off with a little bit of lessons learned.
So what is food contamination? Well, you guys will know this more than me, but in essence, it's anything that's in food that shouldn't ought to be there. We typically think about it in quite technical ways, like physical hazards. Glass is a common one. You often see recalls in the news about product that has broken glass in it or bits of metal. There are some interesting ones that don't make the news – spanners, bolts, other interesting things. I can see some smiles in the audience. I'm sure some of these have not hit the consumer.
Chemical is an obvious one, as well; pesticides, et cetera, but typically, cleaners, lubricants, et cetera. The one that we deal with most often, of course, is microbiological contamination. And this pretty much defines what we do in the food industry, is trying to keep bugs out of – either keep them out of food or manage it in some way.
Definition there from the Food Standards Code – but in essence, as I said before, it's anything that shouldn't be there.
So how does it happen? All sorts of ways. On farm, that can be either pesticides, bacterial contamination, fertilizers, you name it. During processing and storage, again, that can be foreign matter, microbiological contamination, fungi, et cetera. You can't see in that top left one, there is actually a hair there in that hamburger. And again, none of you will be responsible for any of that, but I'm sure you have measures in place to protect against that. What I haven't got there is pictures of bugs, because I can't find any that are big enough to show you.
So how do we manage it? Broadly, in 3 different ways. Now, you'll all be aware of HACCP – and I'm not going to go into that in great detail – but understanding, thinking through in a systematic way, what kind of hazards could be there in the food. So you'll all be au fait with HACCP. You may not be aware it was actually developed to support NASA's space programme, because they needed to be quite scientific about what kind of things could be in food. You really don't want gastro up there in a space shuttle going to the moon.
But in essence, this is just a systematic and scientific way of identifying what could be there, how you can control it, monitoring how you control it, and ensuring that that's operating as expected. What may not be as visible to you is that behind that broad brush strokes off of HACCP we have quite an extensive science program that we do ourselves, looking at how to control those hazards. It's not always that straightforward. It's easy to say – identify and manage the hazard – but sometimes, it requires quite a bit of science to find effective ways that work in a day-to-day basis.
Obviously, we set rules. That's a large part of what we do. So while every business may be operating to HACCP, sometimes we specify that in rules and say, in essence, you have to do X, Y, and Z. And those rules are there to manage contamination, either introduction of hazards or growth of hazards or some control of them throughout the chain.
One that's often forgotten, but it's actually really critical – you'll see this in our public campaign, the "Clean, Cook, Chill" campaign that we do every summer – this is consumer focused. But in essence, it's the same principles. And it's about behavior. It's about individuals who are dealing with food, whether they're in the kitchen or in business, identifying how they can ensure things are appropriately clean, hygienic, to avoid introduction or contamination; cooking it, which is of course that control point; and chilling it, which is another control point.
So who cares? Well, this guy. This guy obviously cares. Nadine talked about about 500 cases per day of foodborne illness. Now, New Zealand used to be described in international forums as the world campylobacter capital, which was not great. So that's about 10 years ago, so we can put that behind us to a certain degree. We still estimate, though, that we have about 200,000 cases per year.
I did a quick calculation while Nadine was talking. That's about 550 per day. So we're significantly better than we were in the early 2000s, the mid-2000s. So we reduced that foodborne campylobacteriosis by about 50%. And that's great. But we still think we've got a long way to go in that area.
We had an obvious target back a decade ago, and we are still looking at managing contamination in that particular sector. It's a much more complicated puzzle now but we still think we can do better.
But I want to go back to that question about who cares? And this touches on what Nadine was talking about, because – don't worry reading that, I'll explain to you what it means – different sections of society do look at risk quite differently. I'm just going to pop back there. So we think our rate of foodborne illness can improve. But we actually have a hard time getting people interested in that.
And as Nadine said, New Zealand consumers go into the supermarket, have a barbecue, do all sorts of amazing stuff in the kitchen, and get horribly sick sometimes. We don't think that's good enough. But people don't get too concerned about it, as Nadine said. Consumers will go and buy the food, will prepare it at home, will have a barbecue, will do all that stuff. How often are we really thinking about, am I going to be getting sick from this? Am I protecting my family, et cetera? We'd actually like to increase people's perception of risk a little bit there.
So what I'm talking about here, though, is some work done on risk perception. And this work, it's about 30 years old now. This is done by Paul Slovic, who kicked off quite a lot of this work. What this graph is showing is simply rated from top to bottom a range of 30 different technologies or risks. You won't be able to quite see it, but at the far left is nuclear power. You have private aviation, pesticides, construction, mountain biking, football, and vaccinations, interestingly, down to the right here.
Now, this audience here – it's a US study, so this audience was the US League of Women Voters – so it's a group of educated and very astute people, but not expert in the area of risk assessment or safety. So this is how they rated those risks from top to bottom. The highest risk they perceived as nuclear power. The lowest risk is vaccination. So 30 years later, it will be interesting to see what it looks like now with that audience. But anyway, that's at that time. That's how they rated it.
Now, if we overlay that with American college students, they've got a very different assessment of what those risks are. And some of the ones that really stand out for me are – what have we got there – we've got private aviation, swimming, cycling, and mountain climbing are all ranked quite slowly. So these American university students think they're pretty safe, actually.
You know what they do think is dangerous? Food preservatives – well, they're pretty dangerous, and contraception. So I don't know what's going through their minds, but I imagine that perception of risk is probably played out over the next few years. But it doesn't really matter what the risk is. The point I'm trying to make here is that they look at it quite differently.
And then, if you overlay the "expert" audience – and I talk about expert in inverted commas – and these are people who understand these risks and are operating within quite a formal risk assessment framework. But they rate them quite differently again. And the ones that really stand out for me – they're rating nuclear power quite low. So this is post-Chernobyl. This has changed things a little bit.
But the technical assessment of risk is still quite low. The technical assessment of mountain climbing and skiing is also quite low. But they're rating x-rays as really quite high, which is a bit counterintuitive. Again, how these are rated doesn't really matter. The point I'm trying to make is that they are different.
And there is not a right assessment of risk. Even these experts' assessment of risk is quite subjective. So while it's in a structured and technical way, and there is a lot of discipline to it, and it's the best way of assessing what the outcome is for the consumer in terms of illness or death, it is still operating within a theoretical framework that that expert is using, which is subjective.
If we pull those assessments of risk apart a little bit – and the ones I've highlighted here are x-rays and nuclear power, which is where the experts were quite different from the so-called lay audience – we can figure out that there are certain characteristics of that risk that drives the perception. So if you look at – this is x-rays in the heavy, in the solid line, and nuclear power on the dotted line – these components are what drive their perception of risk. And again, this work was done by Paul Slovic around about – oh, it's a bit earlier, actually.
And if we can identify the components of those risks, to a certain degree, we can predict how it's going to play out publicly. Is anyone here aware of Peter Sandman? I see a couple of nods. So Peter Sandman took this theoretical work done by Paul Slovic and has turned it into some rules of thumb for risk communication. And he's largely retired now, but he, for many years, was a guru for risk communication. And if you're interested in this, I suggest you have a look. Just Google Peter Sandman. He's quite an accessible communicator.
What he proposed is that risk in his term is actually a combination of what he calls hazard, which is that technical risk, the one that we would normally be using in our technical space, and what he calls outrage. And these outrage factors are factors such as: Is that risk something that is done to us? Is it industrial? Is it dreaded? Is it catastrophic? Is there a moral dimension to it? And is the process around it responsive or fair?
This is really important for us, because if we can identify these characteristics as something that is popping up in our business, to a certain degree, we can predict the public response to that. And I can assure you that these factors, these are a much better predictor of a public reaction to a risk than our technical assessment. We might think something is really dreadful. We might think 200,000 cases of foodborne illness is not good enough. Hmm, public's not too worried about it. But if there's something that triggers one of these, it'll be on the news.
So why does it matter to us? Particularly, why does it matter to us as a regulator? So we need to be using the right tool for the job. So as a regulator, our concern is protecting the consumer. What we're primarily interested in is reducing foodborne illness. But that's a technical risk.
Now, we have legal powers to do that. We can set legal standards that people must comply with. We can direct certain behaviours, we can require people to do certain things, and we can impose sanctions on those businesses who don't follow them. That's all to protect the consumer, from that technical perspective, and that's quite legitimate.
Of course, there are processes we need to follow through ourselves to make sure that that's done fairly and equitably. What we don't have, we do not have legal powers to manage that outrage. We can use communication tools, though.
So this brings us to needles in strawberries. So this was a great intersection between a technical risk – no one wants to be eating something with a needle in it. It could, theoretically, do quite a bit of damage to someone, particularly if swallowed. It could cause choking or significant damage internally.
But the thing that really got this going is this was an intersection between the technical hazard and those outrage components that I was just talking about. There was an aspect of it just shouldn't ought to be this way. That's the feedback. That's the kind of sense we got from media interest and consumers.
So what happened? So you may well be aware. Ninth of September last year, there were some cases reported in – I think it was Western Australia, initially, of needles being found in strawberries. It's actually quite widespread media interest in Australia. But it wasn't until 2 weeks later, when we had found the first… we had the first report in New Zealand. So that's exactly a year ago today. We had the first case reported in New Zealand. And it was actually reported through the media. It didn't come to us directly.
And what we had reported to us was that some imported strawberries from Australia had a needle found on them. Very quickly, we had a whole lot more reports coming in. These actually weren't real cases of needles in strawberries. But it didn't matter. The fact that we got a number of reports very quickly really stood out for us.
So just to give you a bit of context, we get around 500 reports to us of what we call food complaints. So these are people just saying, there's something in my food, there's something not right with my food. That comes into our compliance team. About 90 of those are related to what we call foreign matter, which could be anything from needles through to bits of glass, bits of plastic. Or it could just be, this food smells off. There's something not quite right with it.
Over the last 5 years, about 13 of those – so that's, on average, just under 3 a year – were needles. So it's not uncommon that we get stuff found in food. But this was different.
So in terms of the actual incident and what was going on who would do this kind of thing? What it turned out to be in Australia was a disgruntled employee. And we do have those in New Zealand, too – not in this audience, I'm sure. We had an employee in Australia who wanted to get back at their employer. So she was sticking needles in strawberries and making a bit of a deal about it. And it certainly caused havoc, as you know.
Once it hits the media, though, we get people starting to get on the bandwagon thing – that's kind of cool, let's have a go, let's do that ourselves. And unfortunately, it then spirals from there. What they found in Australia is that quite often, it was kids. Kids around the age of 12 or 13 were the copycats. They saw it on the news, didn't really think through the consequences, but thought it would be quite fun doing that, as well.
So here, in terms of talking about what we did – I'm focusing on the technical management of that risk – we must put the consumer first in everything we do. So whenever we had these reports coming in, we had to follow every one of them up. Very quickly, this was not just about strawberries – the first ones popped up, there were reports of needles in strawberries, very quickly it became a whole lot of other foods.
And so it wasn't just about strawberries. It wasn't just about needles. And the reports didn't come in through formal channels. They sometimes came in through social media. They were sometimes quite spurious. And some of them were obviously people trying to be funny. We had some pictures posted on social media of, I don't know – I think it was one of an apple with a big nail stuck outside, like a six-inch nail, and someone claiming on social media, “I found one.”
What's the real pain in the proverbial is that we actually need to follow up every one of those. And that's between us and the police. So you can imagine there's quite a bit of effort you need to put into that.
As I'm saying here, tampering – so this departs a bit from the normal food safety incidents we're dealing with. This is a criminal matter. So obviously, we're working closely with police on this one. Our efforts here were identifying what's going on, working with supermarkets, industry, et cetera, to recall product, if needs be. Typically, we found these incidents to be one-off. They were isolated.
Quite often, they happened in the home. We have some funny cases where, without releasing too many details, people find a needle in a bit of fruit at home, and you find that it's somehow associated with a sewing kit they have in the home. And there's, not surprisingly, a needle gone missing. It actually didn't matter, because we need to follow up every one of these.
Of course, we had to work with the industry, as well. We weren't operating as a regulator in these contexts. Quite a bit of what we did here was simply getting groups of the affected sector together and then simply provide them information about what we knew what was going on, what was coming next, advising on the kind of communications that we were going to be putting out, advising on what kind of communication they could be putting out, and helping them coordinate themselves.
Because across our horticultural sector, there are a lot of different groups. There isn't a single body. So part of what we were doing – I'm seeing a smile from Nadine there – part of what we were doing was simply bringing these people together and helping get them on the same page.
Some of the measures we advised, given that we saw what was happening was often a copycat type activity, potentially happening in supermarkets or at home, was simply a little bit of visibility, and to kids, for example, going through supermarkets, that you're actually being watched. We are looking. We are looking at how food is being treated in supermarkets, so don't think you're going to get away with this.
Not surprisingly, in retrospect, there was a lot of media. It didn't really kick off until we got that report in New Zealand. To a certain degree, we were looking across at Australia, thinking, well, it's happening over there. It's not our problem. Once we got a report in New Zealand, even though it turned out to be a false alarm, it all flared up. So we ended up with 27 media inquiries in just those 3 days. And that was radio, TV, print, online. So it was important for us to give consistent messaging, but also to let our stakeholders know what that messaging was.
And you can see the quite dramatic illustrations that were playing out quite nicely in the media. I feel sorry for that guy. I did two interviews before 7.30 one morning. And they put makeup on you, which I don't feel that comfortable with. So this is about the reactive media we do. And we do this quite regularly.
But actually, the media can be our friend here, as well. And this is where I want to come back to some of those drivers of risk perception. Because many of the things that were making this incident hit the fan was the unfairness of the situation and the fact that people thought there is a morally relevant thing going on here. Someone is doing something that they shouldn't ought to be doing, and it's unfair, and it shouldn't be that way. And that's why people get pissed off. And that's why their assessment of the risk actually elevates really significantly.
The thing is, you can do stuff about that, if you're aware of that. If you're aware of what's driving the outrage, you can address that. And as I said before, this is not a regulatory matter. It's a communications one. So what we did, in our communications, we put a lot of effort into communicating how people could take the power into their own hands. So if people are in control of a risk, their tolerance of it is very significantly higher. And there's good evidence that shows how that works.
Similarly, if people are informed of what's going on, if they know what's happening, if it becomes familiar, again, the tolerance of that risk is higher. So we were offering people solutions such as cut up your strawberries. Talk to your retailer.
Consumers know what food products look like. This is a file photo we have here. This is not someone looking for needles in strawberries. But this is pretty typical consumer behaviour and I'm sure you all see it. People pick up a packet. They have a look at it. If there's anything out of the ordinary, they'll put it back again. Well, that's a great opportunity to look at it and think, I'm not happy with this. Does it look like it's been tampered with? Go and talk to a retailer or to us.
What we're really doing here is putting the power back in the consumer's hands. They actually have a lot of power. They don't necessarily realize it. What we're doing here is addressing the outrage, not that technical risk.
So in terms of what we get from this, we had a good working relationship with the police already. We had the misfortune of going through the 1080 blackmail incident just a little bit before that. So we'd established good relationships with the police for this kind of thing. So when it popped up in New Zealand, we were very quickly able to set those up again.
We had good ways of working with the industry. We were able to emphasise the criminal aspect of this matter. So it's not just a general food safety thing, it was something that the police were taking quite seriously. And you may be aware that they prosecuted someone, convicted someone, in fact, for making a false claim. So emphasising that serious criminal aspect of it helped us frame it better.
And we were able to address both the safety, both that technical risk and the media dimensions simultaneously. Just a caveat on that – sometimes you want to lower the outrage level so that you can deal with an issue in a rational way. Sometimes you actually want to increase it. And that's sort of the situation we're talking about with our background level of foodborne illness.
So that's it from me. Thank you, and I'll hand it back to Bryan.
[End of transcript]
Audience question: We've just heard how you'd manage a food safety scare in New Zealand or what's best practice. How do you do that when you're exporting to markets overseas? Do you have a plan in place to manage outrage or deal with the communication side, as well as the technical risk, of your products and market?
Nadine Tunley: Yeah, from a horticultural perspective, I can't actually think – oh, yes, I can. It's been a while, it was a long time ago. So we had a situation with a chemical TEA. I must have got it right, he's nodding. For us, basically, what we did in that situation – because again, what had happened is a chemical had been altered. So the companies that we buy from to use on orchard had made an adjustment, and we weren't notified of that.
And so when it got to market it through up in some testing a situation. We were lucky in a lot of ways, because what had happened in that situation, Europe was the country of issue. The product store actually fitted within the ICPRs for the country, but one specific customer – because that's one of the challenges you have, you often go to countries that have rules, but then each specific customer can have their rules, and this one did – and their level of tolerance on MRLs was basically zero.
So the situation for us, at that stage, was all of the companies that supplied to that particular customer, we all came together. We worked through how we would communicate what we would do, what was needed to be recalled, what wasn't. The reality was, in that situation, because it wasn't a consumer risk, because it still fell within the EU standards – it was something that this customer specifically wanted – so it was a matter, in some cases, to move that product away from that customer into other customer hands.
But it was really that we shut it down. If I'm honest, we shut it down. We contained the communication. We worked through it. Because the bigger issue here in New Zealand was the chemical company had made a change without informing us. So all of those things happen. It happens in packaging. It happens in a lot of things.
But by the time, generally, we get internationally, we're always trying to make – it's like 150% sure nothing's going to go wrong. And I can't honestly, other than a lot of the issues that have happened from Fonterra, I can't think of a lot of cases. And I think, even for Fonterra, we're all just so hypersensitive for something to go wrong for them, not just us – international customers, they kind of view Fonterra, Zespri, and then New Zealand. So, yeah.
And the thing is, if they have issues, it is that the rest of us behind them, as well. We make sure that we put out the flags and say, hey, if you guys need support, if there's anything we can do, if there's anything we can help with, pretty much, we generally jump in as quickly as we can. But to be honest, most times, we turn to MPI as well, and we work through communication strategies. Everything is done as a group.
In the last case, where that contamination and the chemical happened, we had to engage lawyers quite early, so that lawyer-to-lawyer conversation had gone on between chemical companies and industry. So yeah, it just really depends on what the situation is, because, is there's a risk of death, is probably always the first. And that changes your response considerably.
Audience question: Hi. Gretel from the Tongan Business Network. I just ordered product with kava. How do you deal with such products that get into the market in any shape or form, and contamination with their root product? I mean, how does New Zealand Food Safety deal with contamination such as E. coli and how products are – how do you keep it safe for consumers?
Paul Dansted: Yeah, thank you for that question. The question was kava and other foods, how do we ensure that these are safe from contamination, and so on? So there are 2 ways. If the food – and we'll take kava – is being sold commercially, there is a person selling that food. That person has legal obligations to ensure that it is not contaminated and it is safe for consumption. So in a big business, they would be working through a systematic process that we call HACCP, which is identifying hazards and controlling those hazards.
In smaller businesses, we tend to issue templates or some general guidelines or rules that the operator will follow to manage that hazard. That's for a commercial business. We have been less involved in community practices and social events. Our focus up until now has been on people producing food for sale.
Nadine Tunley: One example that just came to my mind, as Paul was talking then, was the measles situation we've had just recently. So for us as a food-producing company, we immediately go to our staff and make everyone aware of what things can happen to you if you contract measles, or anything like that. So we try to always get ahead of what could potentially happen.
So we literally do go out and say, this is what's going on in the wider New Zealand environment. Please be aware of these conditions. If you're showing any signs of any issues, you are to step away from work immediately, anywhere where you come in contact with food. There's other areas of the business we can put you in. So the same sort of principles, really. It's part of being a registered programme with MPI, that all of these systems exist in place for that reason.
Paul Dansted: Were you talking about for businesses or in social events and community events?
Audience member: For both really. With other products that are being sold, for example, in kava rooms, and that is safe for consumers. And also, the fact that it's a cultural product, so someone can carry it with them on the plane. And how safe is it? It could come in a container. And so are there any reports of any illnesses or anything arising from kava? Have you got any data on that?
Paul Dansted: Sorry, not off the top my head. I am aware there has been quite a bit of work done in kava, for a number of products that are used in a range of different communities. If they've been used for a long period of time, the expectation is that that's evidence of their safe use. But we are aware that sometimes, if people are diverging from those normal cultural practices, there can be hazards arising in the food that they are unaware of. And those are areas that, if you come along this afternoon and look at when we're talking about in our food safety strategy, we are asking the question about whether we should be more involved in some of that consumer information that might be relevant.
Audience question: It's Claire Morgan here from Griffin's. I'm head of food safety and quality and also the crisis manager for the company, for my sins. So here's a question for the team. It's probably best for Bryan or Paul. There's a statement in the document that says, “We ensure New Zealand’s world class food safety systems remain robust.” So I'm interested to know who you're benchmarking yourself against in the rest of the world.
My experience is the UK and GFSI standards and the works of the likes of Tesco and Marks & Spencer have done to ensure their systems are secure. And I've personally undergone unannounced two day, you know, full and thorough audits from the likes of Tescos. I'm just wondering where you pitch the food safety standards here in New Zealand?
Bryan Wilson, Deputy Director-General, New Zealand Food Safety: Two answers to that – the first is the data is very difficult. There's no direct comparators because the systems are all slightly different. Having said that, we feature in the top few… in general international comparisons, we do feature in the top few of food safety systems around the world. You're right – the UK is another, Ireland is another, sometimes Australia is another. But one of the things that you might see in there, as well, is a little bit about we need more data to understand better about performance.
Audience question: My question is for Bryan and probably for Paul, as well. Just around information going out to consumers, when there are stories in the media around food safety – specifically, from my industry, I'm talking about nitrates and bacon and smallgoods. I'm from Freedom Farms, and we get a lot of communication from consumers who are reading these international reports around relative risk in nitrates. And there's obviously an awful lot of misinformation out there for consumers, as well.
So at what point does food safety step in? Obviously, you've got information on your website. But at what point do you see it your role to respond to that, where there's misinformation that consumers are digesting, I guess? And especially because the more, the longer, that percolates in the media environment, the more misinformation seems to snowball and the more brands and producers are coming in and fudging what they're doing. So what do you see your role as in regulating that part of the market environment?
Bryan Wilson: We do a little bit of responding on social media when some of this stuff comes up. But it is a little bit, is what I'd say. One of the questions we're asking in our consultation document is, how much more should we get involved in educating the public about risks? And Paul mentioned a few examples of where we think it would be good to do that.
The next think I'll say is just a little pitch for our next, our next lecture series. Our departmental science advisor is going to be talking about science communications. And this is a general issue, I think, across, not just food safety, but across science, in general, how there's a difference between what science would say and what the perception of science is sometimes out there. It is a very difficult issue to solve. As I say, we do a little bit. Come and listen to the next lecture. John and Rachel will talk some more about how we think about that. But it is a good point to raise.
Nadine Tunley: I just want to make a comment on that. I think, too, that MPI has changed quite a bit in the last 5 years. And I think that the ability for industries to partner better with MPI on some of this is happening in a much more cohesive way. Everyone looks to government always to, how do we get this out there, how do we do these things? We actually have to – we have to take some responsibility in it, as well.
Because we've got some situations – and your next series clearly touches on it – that we've got a lot of things colliding at the moment. We've got a lot of issues around climate change and impacts right back to the farm. Nitrate is huge on that. There's a lot of misinformation out there. But you know what? As primary sector people in agribusiness in New Zealand, we have to collectively find a way to communicate that message. It is quite scary, the divide and the chasm that's starting to exist because of misinformation.
But we can't just look to government. We actually have to come with some solutions and say, look, how do we do this? And again, I don't think we credit enough on campaigns that have gone really well in New Zealand and looking across how we achieve those. If you look at younger people with drinking and driving, if you look at younger people with putting on safety belts, with wearing bicycle helmets, with putting on sunblock, with all of those things that have happened in a very short time, we saturated them. We just hounded everybody on all sorts of media pathways to get change. We're not doing that with our food, and we have to. And that's a government-industry situation, not just government.
Audience question: This is Peter from the Pest Management Association. This is just a question around the Food Act. As you know, we represent all the major pest management companies around New Zealand. And they come to us and are concerned that the current Food Act and the template system that's in place, particularly for the hospitality, is non-prescriptive in terms of the way that pests should be managed. So what is the perception from New Zealand Safety as to how hospitality staff should be looking at it?
Paul Dansted: So the reason we have food safety legislation is to protect the consumer. That needs to be front and centre. The “how people protect consumers” is less important. So what that means is, that as much as possible, when we set guidelines or rules or some other standard, it doesn't necessarily specify how people do things. So our preference is to be less prescriptive and to give people opportunities to find their own solutions.
That works well for bigger operators and for operators who have a lot of experience in a particular area. We find that a small operator or an operator who doesn't necessarily have that technical expertise sometimes just wants to be told what to do. It's more efficient. It's easier just to be given some guidance.
Across all our food legislation, we have to cater to both ends of that spectrum. I don't know the details of the pest management approach, but I can imagine that across the spectrum of industries that we regulate, there will be many, many different solutions that will be perfectly appropriate. So unless it's necessary, our preference is not to specify exactly how people would operate.
Audience question: OK, thank you for answering that far. The concern that we have, that our members have, is that with the current Food Act and for those people who are, let's say, following the template guide, the requirement in there – and that's getting a little bit specific, you might not have the answers now – is that they are required to observe pests every week or look for pest activity and record that.
Now, if you have no idea what you're supposed to be doing, if you have no understanding of the biology of a pest, how could these hospitality staff know what to look for and where to look for it, and how would they report that? And given the fact that in that legislation, as well, there’s prescription that they could perhaps look at bait stations, use bait stations, and given the fact, too, that with the legislation that changed recently with EPA, when they put out the hazardous property notice, the requirement that, in fact, anybody who is using insecticides or pesticides actually needs to be trained, and they have to have a qualification. And those qualifications in the NZQA is a certificate level.
And more recently, it took away the whole approved handling. So what we're left with now is a situation where you've got guys potentially who are trying to manage pests in the hospitality industry who actually have no idea what they should be doing and how they could do it. So we've left out this whole aspect of the legislation. And so where does that leave the consumer at the end of the day, in trying to, sort of, say that they're protected?
Paul Dansted: Thank you. Look, I completely get where you're coming from. And I guess, across everything that a food operator needs to do to ensure that they are producing and selling safe and suitable food, obviously, pest management is one of that. As I said before, we don't want to specify unnecessarily. But what you're describing is maybe an opportunity for additional guidance for some operators. And we are open to that.
Audience question: Don MacLeod. I'd like to ask Nadine for her comments first before probably Bryan or Paul reply. Under the Food Act, we have the setting of MRLs for pesticides and food for domestic consumption. And that includes animal products. Under the Animal Products Act, we have MPLs, maximum permissible limits, which are specifically for animal products, which are also repeated in the MRLs under the Food Act.
And then we have, of course, importing countries. And because of the importance of trade, we have the importing countries’ MRLs set. And then the customer level, which Nadine correctly identified, and we were all aware of. The question is, is MPI going to get around to sorting this out, so that we can have a trade-centric thought for MRLs, MPLs, that works, and sort out the Acts? Because I always thought, when MPI was formed as a ministry, it was going to sort the mess out. But the mess still exists.
Nadine Tunley: Just to clarify, I don't work for MPI, never have. No, it's OK. So this has been a question forever. This has been a question for – I've been in agri at this kind of space for probably over 20 years. And interestingly, the position we took as a company, or the company I was in at that time, was that we worked to the strictest of the requirements, so that we could fulfil all requirements. And we probably haven't changed that stance in all of the companies I've worked in.
As a company, you take a position on who you want to work with and what those hoops are that we jump through. In fact, in some of my notes, I wrote down, and I laughed to myself. There's field to fork. There's paddock to plate. There's source to stomach. There's all of these beautiful Tesco, Waitrose, everybody's food safety programmes of their own on top of all of ours.
And so we always just took that position, go to the hardest hurdle to jump, and any product that doesn't meet their hurdle, where does it fit? What can it fulfil in the pipeline? And if we have to have those avenues, we do. But we work really, really hard from the field to make sure we can get as much product as we can into those top programs. Because then it just gives you flexibility and ease of business.
MPI's position on that is, honestly, not defending the situation, but because I've looked at it for so many years, it is almost impossible. Because the minute you align or try to align, some customer goes and changes. So yes, you are constantly running. So I don't know, and I'm sure these two will answer. But from an MPI's perspective, if it was me, I would be just putting in a standard that I know is safe and works for protecting New Zealand consumers, because that's their priority, first and foremost.
And then somewhat the rest of it, they're forced by overseas rules and requirements. MPI are only there to negotiate on our behalf to get the standards we want. So yeah, that's up to you now.
Paul Dansted: Thanks, Don. How do I say this succinctly? I could go on for hours on this one. The first thing is that MRLs, MPLs, and those other residue limits are not a food safety standard. They are not a food safety standard. These are process control limits. So we set a whole lot of rules about how pesticides, veterinary medicines, et cetera, can be used out there. And that is assessed against what has the lowest level that can be used that will have the effect.
So then, based on those trials, we look at the data, and we determine when that product, after weathering, et cetera, processing, is then presented for sale, or at some stage along the process, what is the level of residue that we will find? And that's where we set the maximum residue. It's not a food safety limit. It could be hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of times lower than what we would set, if we were setting it based on our toxicology. So it must be lower than the food safety level, but it is actually set as an indicator of the lowest possible use of that chemical.
Now, what that means, of course, is that the actual number is not going to be the same number. It's going to be dependent on the particular use you have in front of you. So if it is under the Animal Products Act, it will be set at a certain point in the chain. If it's under the Food Act, it might be set at a different point in the chain. They're not the same number. They're not comparable.
And we could try and make them the same thing. But it doesn't work that way. That would be assuming that it is there for a food safety purpose. We have toyed with the idea of setting food safety limits for residues. But I think we would horrify people, because the numbers we would set would be very, very much higher than those that you see in front of you.
[End of transcript]
1. Trust in the food safety system for different segments of society
Consumers have a wide variety of views and awareness of the food safety system. There's a role for food producers, food businesses, and regulators to engage with consumers meaningfully about the concerns they may have. We're making some strides towards increased transparency and responsiveness, but there is more work to be done.
To complicate matters, different parts of the community have different demands — with some segments having larger ‘trust deficits’ than others. How do we — those who work in the food system — address this issue and find meaningful solutions to increase confidence?
2. Contamination, communication and confidence
This lecture explores significant food safety events involving contaminants in the food supply.
In 2018, Australian food safety officials were faced with a deliberate saboteur who devastated the Australian strawberry market when they exacted an act of workplace revenge by inserting sewing needles in whole strawberries that were sold in punnets to consumers. Not only did it have an impact on the sales of strawberries, but it resulted in copycat cases throughout Australia and New Zealand.
Nadine Tunley (chief executive officer, Oha Honey)
Nadine has over 30 years’ experience in the New Zealand food and fibre sector particularly pipfruit, seafood, meat, and dairy. Nadine has spent much of her career focused on start-ups, business development, international trade, finance, logistics, and administration.
Dr Paul Dansted (director of food regulation, New Zealand Food Safety)
Dr Paul Dansted is the director of food regulation for New Zealand Food Safety. The food regulation directorate is responsible for developing food production, processing, testing, and import and export standards. Regular engagement with the industry is an essential part of this work. Paul has worked in policy, operations, science, and regulatory roles in the public sector. He has also led and contributed to development of international food standards.
Bryan Wilson (deputy director-general, New Zealand Food Safety)
Bryan is the deputy director-general for New Zealand Food Safety. He is responsible for the Ministry for Primary Industries’ regulatory activities and functions across the food safety and primary production systems. Previously Bryan has worked in regulation across a range of industries in New Zealand and Australia.
Video – Food safety on the world food stage (1:28.43)
Bruce Burdon, manager, Market Access Liaison and Cooperation, Ministry for Primary Industries: Today, I’m here to talk about food regulations and their effects on international agreements. And arguably, actually, you could turn that around, and say, what impacts international agreements have on our food regulations. So the genesis of my talk might be a bit both ways, but they certainly do gel together. But also, what we consider alongside that is wider political and social outcomes we want from a food system that always, kind of, sits in behind what we’re doing.
There we go. So quickly, today, I’ll cover broadly, why do we need food regulations at all? I’ll talk about the global environment that I’m familiar with, and the changes in that, specifically a little bit about our market access arrangements and what some of the drivers there may or may not be. Coupled with that would be our international agreements. And then I’ll finish with, OK, so what is the role of New Zealand’s food safety standards in facilitating trade?
Some of this is motherhood and apple pie, but so why do we need food regulations? Well, maybe it might be to keep people safe from foodborne incidents. But a qualifier from a trade perspective is, in a way, that facilitates trade. And, of course, we want consumers to have trust and confidence in our food, and foreign governments to have trust and confidence that our food meets their requirements.
And I’ll go on a little bit about requirements later, because they are all under the auspices of food safety, but there’s quite a difference in what a requirement in different countries will be about what they consider safe, or not safe, or how we should assure that. And really, in my experience, the greater the trust and confidence there is, the easier it is to trade. And I’m just not talking about foreign governments, I’m talking about consumers, the whole, kind of, ambit, if people have that trust and confidence, whether they’re consumers, or a foreign government, it’s just going to be easier to trade in that product.
Simple. Maybe I should leave now. No, not quite so simple.
The global environment – now, I’ve been involved with APEC Food Safety Cooperation Forum, so I have stolen some of our work, but MPI and a range of other economies in APEC have been working on this. This is kind of out of a document I’ll refer to a little bit, but this kind of sets the global environment about how countries, or organisations, feel or see foodborne problems. And clearly, this is a big problem.
And these are the latest data we could get for this was in 2010 from the WHO, but the numbers, I think, may be pretty much the same now, or even more. Lots of cases of foodborne illnesses, a fair number of deaths, and a huge amount of losses in productivity and people’s performance. So a human cost, which couples and forms into economic costs, with those figures will speak for themselves.
So coming back home, so why then is trade so important to New Zealand primary industries? And clearly, our primary industries and the food part of that is vital to the New Zealand economy.
A large percentage of our GDP, our growth domestic product, a fair chunk of our employment, and probably, arguably, too, still too high of a percentage of our merchandise exports all come from our primary sectors. Slight qualifier there, that would include a bit of forestry as well that might up that figure, but certainly, the figures will speak for themselves. From a New Zealand point of view, and what makes New Zealand quite unique, and I’m going to focus a little bit on this part of the chart here, is this is a percentage of our domestic production of these commodities that is exported. So this basically, the message there is, actually, most of our consumers of these sit offshore, and a very high amount of our consumers are not in New Zealand. They are somewhere else.
So we can then focus in on, so what are the conditions of trade? And so where we sit, the food must be safe, but from a market access or trade negotiation point of view, that’s entry level, if it’s not safe, you don’t even go to the table. It’s just not going to go anywhere near getting into the market.
And then over and above that, it’s got to meet the importing country requirements, so that could be just their simple domestic food laws, just as anyone exporting to New Zealand has to meet Food Act requirements. So, too, do we in other countries. And then coupled with that is whatever is placed at the border to provide the assurance that it meets the importing country requirements. And, again, how well we achieve that and have that will determine the ease of access New Zealand has for our products.
So what will give a foreign government confidence in New Zealand’s food and New Zealand’s food product? And a lot of people would answer to me, if I asked them that question directly, is will it be New Zealand’s reputation for safe food, that consumers seek out New Zealand products, so on and so forth. I’d respond to that by saying, if that was the case, why is it then that almost all of our trading partners add a little something to the New Zealand system that we would say assures safe food?
So there’s a little bit more than just being safe there. We have a range of requirements from not only countries that don’t have good systems, but, arguably, countries that should know better, that impose a whole lot of additional requirements on New Zealand. So why is that the case? And I’d answer that reputation will get us to the table. And then we’re alongside maybe 50 other countries that produce safe food, so you’d say all of North America, all of Europe, most of South America, and many developing and developed Asian countries would produce as safe a food as New Zealand, or thereabouts.
So getting to the door is one thing. The ability to meet those importing country requirements better than our competitors is what can give us that extra edge in the market, or any country. So what do we then rely on for that? Obviously, our robust regulatory and assurance systems, but they have to consistently deliver that safe product, and the product that meets importing country needs, and that we’re a credible partner. So it’s a package altogether. And from New Zealand’s position, an advantage for us in the world is that that is supported by technical competency in MPI, and our industry, and other partners. That we do lead a lot of systems and standards innovation. We have trusted relationships with many of our trading partners.
And we shouldn’t ever lose sight that New Zealand is considered to be one of the least corrupt type countries in the world. And in fact, we do do what we say we do. And there’s a great deal of certainty that we will follow those tracks. So that coupled together supports the trust and confidence that we need to be a credible trading partner.
So where do we sit in the world trade system? We are an open economy, so we don’t kind of restrict the exports, or imports. We are a very small market, and a long way from our international trading partners. So actually, we have very little reciprocal trade value to our partners. So if we went to most of our partners, and said, here, you can 5 million or thereabouts consumers, give us your 70 million, the answer will be, no thank you. So we need to think of some other ways of getting there. And one of the unique parts, I think, is that we must remember that because, as we described before, we’re heavily reliant on the primary industries for our export trade, and therefore we do need to have a balance between our food safety, and I put ‘and biosecurity rules’ on the one hand, and open trade on the other.
And for New Zealand, because of those conditions on the slide there, that possibly places us in a very unique position in the world. We export so much of our primary products, most of our production is geared for export markets. Our competitors, quite often it’s domestic surpluses, or just a small part of their economy. So New Zealand is in quite a unique trading position when it comes to primary products.
These slides, and you’ll be – I don’t intend to go reading them all – but this gives you a taste from our market access global strategy, yet to be published, so you get a sneak preview here of some of the regulatory and legal challenges from food systems that impact on our market access. And I think those people who are familiar with global trading environments would probably understand and see these things. If anything, they’re getting worse as we move on, but they’re some of the challenges that we would face. So many regulations are popping up on food and other phyto and sanitary arrangements.
Plenty of attempts now by regulators to come into our production systems and try and tell us what to do on how we should process things and improve premises and things like that. We still face a lot of inflexibility in importing country laws. They just have a law, it might be 20 years old, and they stand there and enforce it regardless of whether we are a risk or not. And still prescriptive laws versus outcome-based like we have in New Zealand. And also, a lot of the laws in our importing countries actually don’t reference the international standards and trading rules, so they are unable to comply with them from their own law, whereas in New Zealand we do, I’ll go on to it a little bit later, make quite an attempt to introduce international best practice into our domestic environment.
Just going through the list, there’s issues around testing and zero tolerances. And that is a big problem with new testing technologies that go down to parts per billion and they find something that shouldn’t be there, absolutely no risk, but that’s what’s happening. More and more costs of border protection. And as I said, those detection technologies. Inefficiencies across the board in what we’re dealing with. And also, still a reliance on endpoint testing: you’re sure it’s safe by giving it a test at the end of the production process, and if it kind of passes that, you can eat it. That doesn’t gel quite well with the New Zealand system.
So what are we doing about that? And how do we respond at a trade policy level? I’ll plug – I don’t think there’s anyone from MFAT here to challenge? But this comes out of their statement of corporate intent, so they can’t challenge, it’s written that clearly New Zealand subscribes to international rules-based systems, not only in food, or biosecurity, but across the board. And I think the last line there is the one that we should focus on – rules rather than simply power, which I described before, we don’t actually have in a market, provide small and internationally connected countries, like New Zealand, with protection from that great big list I said in the last 2 slides.
And how we go about doing that is that successive New Zealand governments have made it a priority for New Zealand to act as a principled trader within a rules-based system. And from the food safety perspective, those rules basically sit in the WTO sanitary and phytosanitary agreement, and that agreement is the cornerstone of our market access and negotiating position, our ability to influence the rules themselves, and to protect in advance New Zealand’s interests. And the last slide there is simply saying that we do have a major interest, given our position, in proposing, influencing, adopting, and promoting those agreed international standards.
And our experience has shown that the more a trading partner’s standards look and feel the same as New Zealand, the easier it is for our negotiation. And I’ve got a bit of an example of the Rolls Royce of that. I see Glen Neal sitting over there, which I’ll just have a quick mention of our relationship with Australia as a demonstration of that. So New Zealand does support harmonised food standards, but those need to be harmonised and benchmarked against agreed international standards. But we do accept that assuring compliance against those standards is, even if they are the same, can be quite problematic for the things I had mentioned before around testing, or border controls and things like that.
But Codex processes are designed to address those issues. But it would be fair to say that some of those processes can take some time, and they’re slow to respond to new threats and issues.
Have I finished? No, I haven’t. Quick demonstration. So MPI’s legislative systems, our risk management frameworks, and our food standards are all based on international guidance and best practice. And New Zealand Food Safety along with other MPI businesses makes a significant investment in the development, promoting, and use of international standards to advance our sector’s interests.
And I’ll just give a very brief example of a piece of work that we have been working on internationally, and I referred to this, is that a 3-year project was to produce a guideline for APEC members, and anyone else that wants to grab this off our website, and how you should go about modernising a food safety framework that supports trade. And MPI has promoted the development of this guide, and we will move on to promote the implementation of that bilaterally with these member countries. I’m not going to go through all of this, but basically the guide takes you through a range of steps that rather fortuitously, no, by design, actually follow international guidelines of how you might set up a food safety system.
And if you look at that, this basically would mirror how we go about… how we’ve gone about, and how we would go about, implementing our food safety system. And I just highlight the 2 top points from this international guidance document, which I think is quite important. The first principle is, you’ve got to protect consumers. If you take your eye off that, then, obviously, you’re in a bit of trouble. And then if you have any conflict, then the consumers are always win. So very clearly the focus has to be on consumers.
And then we go on to trade. It hurts me to say this, being a trade person, but the second principle is that you do it in a way that is least trade restrictive. So protect consumers, keep an eye on your ability to trade, and I throw in – still protect consumers while you’re trading. So clear, clear guidelines moving forward on that. So there’s no possibility of a trade-off on trade and consumer protection. And that’s not what was wanted.
Interestingly enough, New Zealand co-sponsored this. It was an Australian FSANZ and government initiative, plug that, since I saw people here. But China, Vietnam, Chile, Peru, and the US were quite active in the working group, but all APEC member economies have subscribed up to these guidelines. And we, working bilaterally, will try and sell that.
I’ll just use a Rolls Royce example in my view of what is a really, really good bilateral trading agreement. So under our close economic relations with Australia through multiple tools, we have a single set of labelling and compositional standards between Australia and New Zealand markets. And we also have mutual recognition of our risk management systems.
So the outcome of that is, all food produced in New Zealand can be sold in Australia without further control. And I put in brackets ‘biosecurity accepted both ways.’ So this is food safety requirements. And what that has meant to the participants in this is, obviously, commercial certainty. You’re not going to get stopped at a border. Reduced risk, and cost, and variability for exporters, and improved export participation, especially for small- and medium-sized businesses under that regime.
So remove all those barriers, as we were saying is our aim, and bang, you have your market access pretty much assured moving through. The quid pro quo is we have to ensure that our system remains fit for purpose, maintaining that poisoning people offshore, even Australia.
Finally, so coming back to the theme, so how do we design and implement food standards? It has a profound impact on trade, and our ability to comply would influence international agreements.
Here’s another snippet from our market access global strategy. And there’s some of the views that we’re saying that we need to be cognizant of. So we need to ensure our domestic and export standards reflect best international practice, that New Zealand standard-setters are aware of this global environment around food standards, and including private standard initiatives. And also, to maximize the ability to defend New Zealand’s food standards as meeting the outcomes required by international markets and/or corporate customers.
So the next slide here is really quite important, because the aim from a business perspective is to minimize the need for industry to substantially change their practices depending on the market they are exporting to, because that is costly, it is certainly market restrictive. But it’s not only governments that force businesses to do that, but it’s the private standards and so on and so forth.
So it then it comes back to – you know, our first priority is to ensure that our world-class food safety systems remains robust in responding to those future challenges. Thank you.
[End of transcript]
Dr Rod Lamberts, deputy director, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science): I don’t normally blush, but I think I am now. Thank you, Paul. Yeah, the ‘expert’ title. Thank you, and thanks for the pressure, I appreciate that very much. I hope you can cope with my Australian accent. No one’s flinching yet. Excellent.
So I won’t start with an apology, but I will start with, perhaps, an explanation. This is the title of the presentation, and the reason for that is, when people first started speaking to me about coming here today, we were bandying about topics, ideas, and the gist of what I might talk about.
And this came up very quickly: communicating difficult science to laypeople. And I can’t help it, as a science communication guy and as an academic, I thought, I’m going to take that and I’m going to pull it apart for a moment. So not to pick on the people who suggested it, because it’s a very reasonable starting position, but it’s something that’s worth discussing.
So starting to think about this from my perspective, for starters, this notion of ‘difficult science’. So what is difficult science? And we talked about novel foods. And I will confess immediately, novel foods is not my expertise. Talking about things like it is, but novel foods in particular is not. So when I think about novel foods, one of the first things I consider is almost definitely not novel problems. The issues of communication, et cetera, with them, we’ll be probably not even remotely unique, quite frankly, in many situations. And more importantly, though, the science is probably not the difficult bit. So novel foods isn’t a difficult science, but the issues surrounding it may well be.
Second, as Paul flagged, communicating difficult science to laypeople – I, of course, have to bounce up and down about the word ‘to’, the implication of one-way communication, we bring the wisdom from the mountain and shall bestow it upon you, is something that we don’t strongly encourage in my realm. And I don’t think I would encourage it anywhere, unless your goal is to dominate and be the boss, or not be listened to. That’s another good option.
It’s always ironic when I lecture on this sort of stuff. Don’t just stand there and tell people what to do, and I stand up there and tell people this. So why would you listen to me? Paul’s told you I’m an expert. Ignoring that. So I have a background in psychology, and also in medical anthropology. That’s what kind of got me fascinated about how people think, comparing cultures, comparing belief systems, et cetera. But that was all getting a bit too strange for me, so it all munched together into a PhD in science communication, so that’s what I did 2,500 years ago.
Since then, I’ve been designing science communication courses, and I’ve done some of the first in the world. Not the absolute first, but we were damn close. I’ve done a lot of national polls in Australia, often with comparisons to other countries, beliefs and attitudes towards science amongst non-science folk, attitudes towards the professions of science compared to others, and so forth. I’m very interested in risk and persuasion, because it’s fascinating. For a person who likes how humans work, risk and persuasion is a wonderful place to play.
And as Paul flagged as well, I’m moving more into this idea – I don’t like the phrase ‘public intellectualism’ because it sounds, I’m going to use an Australian and New Zealandism, very wanky. That said, what lies behind it is actually quite useful, because it means getting out beyond the hallowed halls of academia, et cetera, and using what we’ve learned to be more useful and interesting, which is why I do a lot of public communication in my job – blog posts, opinion pieces, podcasts. Obviously, that thing on the bottom right to you is the best podcast that’s related to science in the world. I can hardly recommend it, because I’m half of the team. But also, public presentations in major organisations, minor organisations, advice to NGOs, governments, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. That’s the expert bit, I think, Paul, is that right?
So from that perspective, what’s science communication? So first up, I just want to briefly mention it from my point of view. So I’ve been around this discipline not quite as long as it’s existed, but quite close, because it’s very young, as am I, obviously.
And what strikes me when I look at science communication is it really meanders around these 3 realms. It’s not just scientists going out to the public, whoever they may be, and putting science in their brains. It’s often that, but it’s also us listening to publics. There’s science to policymakers, while they are publics, they are also a very unique kind. And more than anything else, quite often, in my world, it’s scientist to scientist. Different kinds of scientists, when they talk to each other, are a fascinating thing to watch from an academic point of view, and also just a straight interest in humanity.
And I say what we do is English-to-English translation, because I’m speaking from an Australian context. The point being, we take some kind of language that everyone understands, but not quite, and turn it into a different kind of the same language that everyone hopefully will understand. And all this has to be done in context. And you’re going to get sick of context by the time I finish. I call it the C word at home, and it’s the C word everywhere I go. Context is the big one here.
So when I deal with people, when I talk to people, especially if I’m, sort of, offering advice, or offering consultancies, the first thing I’ll do – this is not revelatory – I’ll ask people what their goals are. This is from the science communication point of view. ‘What are your goals?’ And to summarize just about everyone’s response to that, particularly in climate science lately, but this is basically what I hear: ‘It’s important that people understand this science,’ whatever this science may be. That they say, is their goal.
And that makes me scratch my head. And I say, ‘Well, that’s fine. So tell me why. I’m curious to know why you think that is your goal.’ I get told this, again, paraphrasing and summarizing over many people, many sciences, et cetera. ‘So they’ll see there’s a problem.’ If they understand the science, they’ll see there’s a problem, and almost potentially more importantly, they will then do something about it. They will act in a way that’s cognizant, or concurrent with the science, and do something about it. I understand why people would think that. The reality is that’s rarely the case.
And what this reflects is something we talk about a lot in my realm: the deficit model. I don’t know, is this a phrase familiar to people? Excellent. I can tell you whatever I want then. This is an image of the deficit model, I think, encapsulated. The public are a giant empty headed bucket waiting to be filled. The science comes along with delicious science facts, pours it into the heads, the public are made better, things will improve. I know it’s simple. I can stop as well right here.
Now, there’s some issues with that. It starts with the idea that education equals all these things. If you are educated, you will be motivated, you will be inspired, you will change your attitudes, you will change your behaviours, you will accept the science. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Never so straightforward. This privileges science information above all other kinds of knowledge, which, I mean, we all know this, this is already problematic, potentially, depending on what you’re trying to do. Also, expertise in this sense is formal scientific qualification. People might not say this out loud, but this is really the implication – the application of this sort of thinking.
It relies on many things, but one of the main ones is the idea that people behave rationally, or at least the people will be motivated to behave rationally. Truth is, people aren’t that rational, or rather their rationales aren’t that apparent, and often not made explicit. So the rationality of the thinking is often very clear. What it’s based upon is a whole other story and that’s something we have to delve into quite a bit.
So there’s that C word again, context matters, and it matters a lot. And in fact, it often matters more than the science matters, which might not make science people comfortable, but that’s OK. It’s not my job to make you comfortable, it’s my job to try and help.
Now, I’ve had this launched at me too when I say this: ‘That’s just a bunch of hippy crap.’ ‘You care about people’s feelings.’ ‘The science isn’t more important.’ ‘I don’t like that’. I’ll give you an example. So, in the past, I should say, earlier this century – I love being able to say that – earlier this century I used to do a lot of work with UNESCO in the Pacific. Their main office is in Samoa, in Apia, so I’ve moved in and out of there a few times up until a few years ago.
And there are many stories from this that relate to the notion of context, but one of my favourites was talking to a nutritionist who was brought in by the UN to talk to people in Samoa about obesity, heart disease, diabetes, et cetera, related to diet. And she was at the opening of a school, and like many countries in the world, when there’s a major event, lots of food, lots and lots of food. The tables were groaning with cans of Spam. We all know what Spam is. And some of the cans are sold in 5 kilo lots. Lots and lots of Spam. Spam is very popular, at least it was last time I was in Samoa.
And she turned to some of the people, and said, ‘What are you doing? This stuff is poison. This is a terrible thing to eat. This is part of the reason that you have obesity, diabetes, et cetera, et cetera.’ And she was told very quickly, ‘What, you want us to give up our traditional foods?’ And this stunned her, because it’s not what she expected to hear. But this is the point – the context for them, the people she was speaking to in particular, was this had taken on the status of something quite traditional, something that they valued, the people she was speaking to.
I didn’t expect that, even though I thought it’s a great story about context. So the risk for them was to stop eating traditional food. Anyone else know that? I didn’t know that. So what if you can just use straightforward stats? Let’s take the cultural stuff out. It’s easy to talk about cross-cultural experiences and how they can go wrong when people don’t understand, so I’m just going to give you some very straightforward stats. These are numbers from the Australian government from a few years ago.
The risk of Down syndrome. We’re familiar with Down syndrome, I assume. So here’s a table. I’ve shown this to undergrad students. I’ve shown this to expert scientists. I’ve shown it to people all over the place. I’ll put this up, and say, OK, what’s the most risky category? You don’t have to answer out loud if you’re worried. You don’t want to get it wrong.
Almost invariably, people will say that, and fair enough. By birth, per birth, the most risky category is children born to women who are 45 years and older, because the ratio is low. Then I say to them, ‘What if I tell you maybe it’s this category?’ And people look a little confused, and I say, ‘Well, it depends on your point of view.’ So if you’re trying to come together and think about public policies to support children and parents of children who were born with Down syndrome, far more children are born to women in that age group than in the top age group. So the risk category, in fact, could be quite different, depending on your point of view. Once again, context matters.
So this brings me to the notion of facts speaking for themselves. I hear this a lot. And quite coincidentally, my friend Bruce here, my new friend, I should say, maybe not after this, mentioned this too: the facts speak for themselves. And I agree. They do. Facts do speak for themselves. But they have this unfortunate habit of saying different things to different people in different contexts.
So what we find then is their effects can also be quite different as well. So the facts will speak to me in one way, and they’ll speak to you in another. And if we don’t have an explicit conversation, we don’t know what’s going on.
So turning, I think, in the context of, we could say, novel foods and foods in general, but more generally, risk perception and communication. Now, I don’t know – I’m assuming for many of you this is a familiar formula. Technically, risk looks like this. This is the basic articulation of how risk hangs together. Its probability times consequence. How likely is the hazard, or the terrible thing, times the consequence of that happening. The formula can be very complicated on the right hand side, but the gist of it is that.
This, of course, can be influenced by many other factors, and I’m just going to mention a couple, because there are heaps. But just for those of you who are unfamiliar, the perception of that risk may vary quite wildly depending on many things. From the point of view of the person concerned, for example, how rare is that event likely to be. How rare does it seem to be will affect how deeply concerned people may be about that risk. How much control do we believe we have over the hazard that we’re talking about? And the classic is, we all feel safer when we’re driving than when someone else is driving. In Australia, I think, 98% of people think they’re better than average drivers, which is statistically impossible, but we’re all convinced. And this is quite similar. We often believe, if we have more control, then we’re safer, which is probably untrue in many situations. How bad do we think the outcomes will be? So whether it happens or not might not be the issue, but if it did, how horrible would it be? And another one is the extent to which we chose the risk voluntarily. There are many more, as I said, this is just a flavour.
So what we see much cleverer people than me say is, risk, socially speaking, looks more like this. So it’s the perception of the hazard, the bad thing, plus the outrage people would experience, should it occur. And this can be extremely personal. Outrage doesn’t just mean anger, it could mean fear, it could mean despondency. It could mean anything. It could mean lashing out in anger.
But this is by a guy called Peter Sandman who’s like the pope of risk research and communication. I’m sure he wouldn’t like to be called that. I’m not sure. My favourite though, came around about 8 or 9 years ago. I’m not responsible for this, but I think this is much more appropriate for the current generation. So when in doubt, think of risk that way, and you’re probably going to be OK. You’re going to get somewhere further.
Continuing with risk, I’m just making – ah, we have time… Continuing with risk. This is another one I hear a lot. What’s the real risk? Or turn that around, how safe is it? And there’s a long conversation about risk versus safety and what that means. We’re not going to get into that. Two of the things I hear a lot, and I think it’s quite reasonable. From an expert point of view, ‘Why won’t people just listen to us, we know what’s really going on?’ Technically, probably true. It’s a very reasonable request to have, and it’s a very reasonable frustration. But it’s not necessarily practical. The reality of the scenario, or the communication, might not work that way.
From the other end of it, ‘If only they, the experts, would tell us the real risk,’ or translation, ‘I just want to know if I can eat bacon for breakfast every day. Is that safe? Is that OK for me?’ And again, this is a very reasonable thing to ask. Of course, we want to know if we’re safe or not. And, of course, we want the experts to tell us, but we all know, particularly in this room, it’s almost never that straightforward. There are many complexities. There are cultural issues and so forth.
So this kind of leads to 2 of the most common errors I’ve seen, or come across in risk comms. One is trying to convince people to accept the risk where they get zero benefit, or sometimes even less. So saying to someone, ‘Your drinking water isn’t safe. You’ve been drinking it for 100 years. I realize that, you’ve had no problems with it, we just want to add a little bit of chlorine to it, that’s going to make it even safer.’
And from their perspective it’s already safe, and what you’re asking them to do is suddenly accept the fact that there’s going to be chlorine in their drinking water. Technically, great idea, as I understood last night, but, in practice, what you’re saying to them is, ‘I want you to take a risk you didn’t have yesterday for no benefit, and, in fact, potentially, worse than no benefit.’
The other one I see people do is focus, of course, on technical arguments to persuade people to accept that risk. So someone who is not happy about hearing there’s going to be chemicals in my water, showing them an equation of how safe, or not unsafe the chemical is, not helpful. Context matters. You will get sick of it. I’ll do my best to make you sick of it.
Linked to this then is this notion of telling people what’s important to them, but we don’t get to do that. We want to. Particularly from our position of expertise, we want to tell people what’s important to them, but it just doesn’t work. And I had a great example from years ago working on a quick presentation to quarantine people in Australia. And I was talking about risk, and I said, so tell me about, tell me about your problems, you know, what are one of your issues?
So we have a great one here. Great one. Very big inverted commas. People like to smuggle birds, reptile eggs, et cetera, in and out of the country, and that’s bad. And people would do it like this. And I said, ‘So what do you do?’ He said, ‘Well, we tell them don’t do this,’ – strap birds to your legs, put eggs in carved out books, get on international flights and take them away, or bring them in. I said, ‘Cool, why do you tell them not to do that?’
He said, ‘Well, because you should care about biodiversity in Australia. You should care about our economy. You should just be proud to be an Australian, and you don’t want to hurt all that.’ And I confess, I tried to keep my poker face, but it wasn’t easy, because I thought, you’re kidding. People who are prepared to strap live parrots to their legs and get on a plane do not give a rat’s about our economy, our national anthem, and even our rugby team, but we’ll get to that in the afternoon tea, morning tea.
So you can’t tell people what’s important to them. It doesn’t matter. You can try, but it’s unlikely to work. But what you can do is ask them. So that’s why, of course, a pitch for academia, we do the research. We find out from people what’s important to them.
Now, here’s one of my favourite phrases when it comes to trying to convince people of things, and also seeing how people perceive things. Read it twice because you’ll think it’s wrong to begin with.
‘I’ll see it when I believe it.’
That’s not mine originally, but I just love it, because it’s so wildly true. It’s entertaining. And there’s a great little study. There are many, but one of my favourites, apologies for the jargon, ‘motivated numeracy’. This idea that your values and your beliefs will literally affect the way you interpret simple numbers.
So there was a study done in the US by a mob who look at cultural cognition, they call it, if you’re interested. Dan Kahan and a mob over at Yale. They took a bunch of people who are either very strongly in favour of gun control laws, or very strongly against gun control laws. And they were shown some very basic numbers. And they were told, either this was talking about how effective a gun control measure will be, or how effective a new skin cream will be. Same numbers, same simple relationships between the numbers.
And what they found was, people who are anti-gun control, when shown numbers that showed that gun control would have a positive effect, didn’t read it that way at all. They said, no, this is terrible. These numbers prove that this doesn’t work. When the same kinds of people were shown the same thing about skin cream that showed the skin cream was effective, no problem, this is a good skin cream. So they were literally, in a sense, rendered innumerate by the power of their values.
And the summary, I’ll let you read that yourselves. That’s one of the summaries from the researchers. So the way we literally interpret basic numbers can be utterly – I hesitate to use the word, but honestly, perverted by the beliefs that we bring to the table. ‘I’ll see it when I believe it.’ This leads on to talking to audiences, thinking about publics, laypeople, whatever you want to say. We’re all these people. Scientists are lay just as much as laypeople are scientists and so forth.
And the 3, kind of, messages I’d offer here is audiences tend to be more diverse than we expect. So we frequently talk about, how do we help ‘the public’? How do we help ‘them’? And we know that people aren’t a homogeneous mass, nonetheless, we tend to treat it that way, because it’s simpler, it makes sense. The differences amongst different interest groups varies wildly and it can be a lot more nuanced than you might imagine. And he says overgeneralizing doesn’t work well. So be aware of that, to offer a tip or two.
So when you’re thinking about your audiences, these are the 3 things I’d suggest anyway, there may be others, there may be some that work better for you, but what does your audience actually want from you? How do you know that? That one maybe should be underlined, boldfaced, and capitalized? You’ll make assertions about what you think the audience wants, but how do you know that? Quiz yourself directly. Do you actually know that to be true?
And finally, what do you want from them. And this is something I think we often forget. We won’t say it out loud, or at least we won’t be honest about it. So I think you need to be quite explicit about what you want from your audience. So don’t say you want them to know climate science if what you want them to do is stop destroying the climate. Those are not the same things. So be honest, open, and explicit, and clear in your goals.
Speaking of goals, let’s link it to assumptions. We all make them. That’s what we do. There are many clever and pithy quotes about assumptions being the mother of all stuff ups, et cetera, et cetera. I won’t make any of those. I just want to talk briefly about them.
And this is one from science communication that comes up a lot. Just because you have science facts informing the messages you want to get across, it doesn’t mean you need to put them in the message. Now, this might not be as big a deal for you people in this room, but in a realm of science communicators who tend to be academically, in particular, extremely pro science, they love science. They love it with a religious zeal. And so they want everyone to love it as much as they do, which is wonderful. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful and useful.
So the idea that you need to have science in the messages is often a flawed one, unless your job is to convey the science. Then, of course, have at it. Fill your messages with science as much as you will.
Another assumption, this is often present and prevalent in risk: are you offering people a solution to a problem they don’t believe they have? That should become apparent pretty quickly. So how you think about that. You’re saying, ‘I’m here to solve your drinking water problems.’ They’re saying, ‘We don’t have a drinking water problem.’ ‘Well, that doesn’t matter. I can still fix it for you. Let me tell you technically why it’s a problem.’
How do you find your assumptions? This is the advice I’d offer anyone. Whenever you say things like this, ‘What people need to know…’, The important thing is…’, ’We should make sure everyone does…’
As soon as you make these assertions, you’re making assumptions. They may not be articulated. But as soon as you hear yourself, your team, your people, your students, your lecturers, whatever may be saying this, that’s an assumption flag. So stop and think, well, why must people know this, why should we all do that? Again, how do you know? Go back to that. Think about it in context, et cetera, et cetera.
Winding up now. I know it’s a whirlwind. I’m bombarding you at high speed with great enthusiasm, it’s because I like this stuff. I find it really interesting. It’s hard to know how much to trim down.
Rights and wrongs, a little bit on the idea of what’s OK. So we’re going to talk about persuasion briefly. Persuasion seems to be OK. We accept it in advertisements, marketing, and ads, we accept it one way or another in politicians.
Is it OK for science and scientists to actively try and persuade people? I’ll stop popping. A lot of people think not. They feel uncomfortable with that, because persuasion comes laden with negative implication, that you’re trying to manipulate people in ways they don’t want to be manipulated, or make them do things they don’t want to do, et cetera.
But I would say that depends on your goals. So you can use all these things for good and evil, and sometimes in between. That’s up to you. I’m not here to judge. I’m just here to comment. It’s quite different.
When I have made these suggestions… in 2014, I wrote a piece in The Conversation. If you don’t know The Conversation, I highly recommend it. It’s a very interesting source of expert, that uncomfortable term again, advice, but made for a slightly more public and digestible audience. And I wrote a piece like this saying basically, we keep on trying to be, for want of a better way of putting it, gentlemanly about the way we communicate our science and our knowledge when it comes to climate. And then the deniers, characterizing this crassly, will come back and use every technique of manipulation in the book against that. And they often win, or they, at least, flood out the airwaves with those messages that are anti-science, whatever it may be. So I was saying, well, if you really – if your actual goal is to beat these people, again, crass and brutal language, maybe you need to use some of their tactics.
So climate deniers went crazy at me. I don’t know if you know Christopher Monckton, the goggle-eyed maniac from the UK, who’s very anti-climate. He personally attacked me, which I wish I had a badge for that, because I would wear that every day. I got attacked by a bunch of groups in America for saying such outrageous things. I was accused of being a Nazi and wanting to invade Poland. It’s fantastic. So for my money, that worked. And I was attacked by climate scientists for daring to suggest they cheapen themselves, sully themselves, and not offer every caveat about what’s going to happen with all the data they have, but why won’t people act on climate. And I’m looking at them. I find this a little bit confusing, let’s just say.
So I suggested one thing – there are many persuasive techniques. That’s a whole other lecture, course, career. But here’s one of my faves. I don’t know if you remember our former buffoon prime minister. He got voted up quite often by saying stuff like this. He just repeated these questions. And not long after he got voted in he was asked, ‘You’ve become the office, or the minister, for women,’ there are so many ironies in that, we don’t have time for those either, but they said, ‘So what have you done for women in your… or what are you planning on doing for women in your role as this person?’
And he said that: ‘I axed the carbon tax, I stopped the boats, and I’m repaying the debt’. So he immediately just ignored the question and repeated these slogans. And people who love him repeat the slogans, people who hate him repeat the slogans, people like me, who are obviously completely bipartisan and ambivalent, repeat the slogans. It works. It works. Or at least it worked for a while. Now he doesn’t have a job anymore, and that’s fine.
So what I’m suggesting, for example, with climate is something like this. A leader we all find a lot more sympathetic, the most popular country leader in the world at the moment. Congratulations. It won’t last, but congratulations.
My suggestion is to do something like this. Say that. Whenever you’re asked the question. If it’s climate – I’m using climate because I know that better – just say that, say these three messages, whatever they may be, and repeat them. And if you’re asked, what about this study that came out on Monday where there was a 5% doubt that one of these things may go wrong? ‘We’re breaking the climate, there is no doubt, let’s fix it.’ Just repeat it. Use that tactic. People will get mad with you, but that will get out, and it will get out, and it will get out, and it will get out. It’ll also get out. It will be repeated by people who hate you and by people who love you. So that’s a recommendation. You’ve got to be comfy with that though.
That said, look, there are no silver bullets to this kind of risk communication stuff. There’s no magical formula. One size doesn’t fit all. We can’t all suddenly give you this one solution to things. I know it hasn’t been that… what the right thing to do just depends on what you want to achieve and the trade-offs, therefore, that you’re prepared to make to achieve it.
And it may be selling yourself in a climate argument, talking in political slogans, may be a trade-off you’re not prepared to make. I am, if you’re a climate person and want to do it, I’ll do it for you. I have no beef with that. But I don’t want to talk to nuances anymore. I’m concerned.
So I’ll close on just a reminder, goals, context, if nothing else, can you take those 2 away, if you didn’t already know them, and you probably did? I think there’s a thank you slide inserted here. There is. Thanks, folks. I’ll stop there.
[End of transcript]
Audience question: Look, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to ask a specific question, or jump straight into a specific question. But, say, your example with the chlorine in water. So if presenting the science doesn’t work, if that’s not the right way, what would be a way to sell that message? I mean, what’s a more effective way likely to be?
Rod Lamberts: Are you ready for an academic’s answer? That depends. It really does. I don’t know the specifics of people. I mean, I brought that up because I was having dinner with Paul and some colleagues last night, and the water issue came up, so that sprang to mind. But I mean, yeah, it really depends. It depends on what you know about the people’s objections to begin with. Like, what are they actually objecting to? And often we find people in a risk scenario will say they’re objecting to the chlorine, but they may be objecting to, for example, the fact that it’s just being put in there without consultation.
So it may be the fact that they’re being told, without their consent, without volunteering to consume it, they must, for example. So it may have nothing to do with the science at all. And that’s what I meant, so you kind of need to explore that. I know that’s not always realistic. I’m aware. I work in a university, and we come up with wonderful ideas that no one will fund all the time. It’s one of our gifts. It’s in the job description. So I know that might not be realistic, but that is what I’d suggest. As best you can, find out actually what the objections may be.
I mean, I’ve seen people interviewed, and they say, what, I don’t want chemicals in my food. I don’t want anything with chemicals in it. And you think, really, so you don’t know what a chemical is? Cool. Where do we start with that? OK. What do you eat? Right? And then maybe you can start a conversation there. What do you think is great? What do you feed your children? I mean, try and find out and dig deeper, because it probably isn’t the chlorine. Probably, but it may be.
See, it depends. You’re welcome.
Paul Dansted, director of food regulation, New Zealand Food Safety: Can I jump in there, too? So Rod made a comment, sort of, at the beginning. He was deconstructing the topic we gave him about communicating science to the public. And what Rod focused on, we made a bit of a joke about this last night. ‘Communicating to’ is a little bit, like, let’s communicate science at the public. There you go public, you’ve been communicated at. Maybe we should try communicating with. And then the onus is on us, to a certain degree, to understand what’s actually going on in their head, because communication, almost by definition, is a 2-way thing.
Audience question: Hi, Rod. My name’s Matt, and I’m from MPI. With any narrative, or any kind of story you tell to the public, there’s always 2 sides, right? There’s always a positive story and a negative story. And with climate change, which you’ve talked about at length, it seems to be that there’s always – there’s a battle potentially between the two. There’s an opportunity for innovation in climate change. And then there’s also the tension between, like, this is an intractable issue, it’s a deep issue that can’t be solved. And so do you find that the public tend to respond better when the narrative is created and tilted towards the positive when moving, when transitioning to a low-emissions economy, there’s exciting opportunities?
And so do you also find that when you talk about the negative and you enforce it enough, people get turned off and then say, no, I can’t do this, and I won’t do it. So there’s a behavioural thing that’s going on with the way you communicate these messages to people? I’m just interested in hearing how you found those kind of narratives.
Rod Lamberts: Yeah. I think if you can go positive, you should. Again, it depends on the audience. The thing that – along that line, one thing that struck me recently, last week, whenever the climate marches were happening, the climate strikes, whatever they were called, there was some interesting stuff in the Australian media, interviewing coal miners who were at the marches saying, ‘We have no problem with this, just we know we have transferable skills, show us where to move them. We’ll go and weld that instead of that. I don’t need to weld a coal mining truck. I’m happy to weld a giant propeller to suck in the energy from the wind. No problem at all.’ But those conversations apparently weren’t being had.
So that positive message seems to work. Showing the fact that it’s not about whether you’re with us, or against us, I think is important. So that, of course, catches the public’s – the public, I’m generalizing – what caught my imagination was the fact that a coal miner was there holding up a sign saying this. And he was talking about, and I spoke to a number of others, they’re embarrassed every day to go to work at the moment. They feel terrible, but they need to live, feed families, pay mortgages, go on holiday. We’re allowed to go on holiday. All these sorts of things matter.
So the positive messages can work, but not always. I’ve sat in rooms full of rabid green left folk who have been really angry about positive messages. They just want to try and scare the crap out of everyone. That doesn’t work well. It only works with people who want to be frightened, or who already agree. So it’s horses for courses.
So again, I know it’s evasive, it’s academic, it’s like I’m in a tutorial. That depends, what do you think? What audience, what people, what issue? Also, what’s a big win, a small win? Can you get little incremental steps? The idea that you solve the whole problem in one big, one fell swoop, you’re doomed to fail. So I don’t know if that helps, but you, kind of, got to dig a bit deeper. What are the nuances of the actual, the communication of the people involved? And it’s probably all more than 2 sides.
Audience question: Hi, I’m Grant Percival. I’m from Natural Foods. I’m a food manufacturer from Samoa. My question to Bruce is, what are the qualifiers for ‘safe’, because you put it up there that we’re looking for safe food? When we’re exporting to, say, the United States, we’ve got to make sure that our food is ‘generally considered safe,’ but you’re saying that the food is exactly safe, because what are the qualifiers for that?
I’m just warning you, because it’s something that I’d hazard to put on any piece of paper that says that my food is exactly 100% safe, or anything like that. Because once you do that, then it becomes known as unsafe, does that completely discredit your whole 5%, is what I used to call it, the 5% rule? 5% of any population, or any sort of action can ruin 95% of a reputation for a company, a country, a reputation, or in this case, New Zealand foods.
Bruce Burdon: Right. There’s quite a lot in there. So as the New Zealand government, we try to avoid actually saying, or giving an assurance that something is safe. We tend to operate on systems, and say, ‘It’s gone through this,’ and if it’s gone through that, then it should be safe. But we are dealing with biological systems, and something happens, there’s other expletives you can put in front of that, but things do happen, and incidents happen. And those situations, how you deal with that is almost as important as whether you had the problem or not in the first place. So there are a number of steps.
And I don’t really think, I can’t give a legislative or technical answer of what is safe and what isn’t safe. It is safe, or not safe. But basically to a point that it’s unlikely to cause any foodborne illness and to steer away from quality, or other attributes as well. Excepting that from time to time, something out of the system will produce unsafe food, and people are going to have illnesses as we saw on the board. So yeah, we do try and steer away from ‘safe.’ And as I said, we certainly try and steer away from assuring to foreign governments that it’s going to be safe, because if it isn’t, we’re going to get sued. But also… I’m talking collectively. People are responsible as well. And also, we don’t want to put up on a pedestal that ours is safer than yours, or it’s safer than safe. We tend to have that line: ‘It’s gone through a system. It should be safe.’ And then marketing, or other attributes, you can take it on from there.
Audience question: The other thing that I wanted to ask is, you said that this is based on international standards. Which standards are you basing them on?
Bruce Burdon: Look, most of our food standards are based on Codex food standards. So on the New Zealand Food Safety website there’ll be a link to Codex that would explain what those standards are. And we base our system on those standards and we take them into account when we make our other food standards. And in some cases, we adopt them as New Zealand standards, or alternative to New Zealand standards. So if you want to export us some food, you don’t have to meet New Zealand’s residue standards if you meet a Codex standard, and that’s written into the law.
Audience question: Sorry. Because I’ve tried to export to Japan, and we’ve tried to export to Australia and New Zealand. One of the things that I just want to quickly ask, this is more a technical question than anything else. For your food safety standard, how many times a year are you going to be reviewing that? Because, for instance, in Japan they do it every 3 months. It’s kind of scary, as you said, like, for business, like ourselves, in Samoa, it’s very hard for us to keep up with that whenever they change the standard every 3 months, you’re having to completely review your whole system and then look at it. I was just wondering whether New Zealand is going to be doing something similar to that, because that’s a lot of work.
Bruce Burdon: You mean reviewing international standards? The ones that we pay the most attention to are the government-to-government import ones. So there’s two sets of standards, one is, as I mentioned before, you need to meet whatever the internal standard is, whoever you export to, labelling, and all of that. Where we become interested in MPI is if a foreign government asks us to provide an assurance against certain things. And for the most part, it’s not against everything that they want. So the only thing we will review, generally, is the government-to-government assurance area. But if we come across information that changes the laws and things, and we’ll let exporters know.
But you’re quite right. I know, and correct me if I’m wrong, for someone sitting there from Fonterra, but I know there is a big team of people in Fonterra in Beijing, in Shanghai, that all they do is keep up to date with the internal food laws in China, or in the provinces if they are different. And that’s all they do from a commercial point of view, so they can meet them. But we don’t touch that as an agency at all. That is a commercial activity. We’re, sort of, interested, but we would need to be several hundred people if we did that.
Audience question: Thank you. Sorry, just something that Rod brought up earlier as well about the – it’s because I’m Samoan myself – our food changed early 1950s and 1960s, 1970s, and my grandfather, for instance, was physically fit, like, what you’d call crossfit people, and he was like that all the way up until he was like 60, 70, and then he started smoking 20 packs a day, just because he thought, well, I’m cool, I want to be like James Dean. So he’ll be smoking constantly throughout the day. The lifestyle changes that we had, for instance, the introduction of Spam as the traditional food was only because of the fact that Spam could last a long time. You could sit it on the shelf and you won’t have to worry about it.
So you could eat it any day. You could eat it on Monday, then eat it on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. You buy it at the beginning of the month and then not have to worry about eating food, or buying food, or collecting food, especially when you walk outside, it’s 85% humidity, 35 degrees, you don’t really want to be walking out into a jungle, going, ‘Oh, let’s collect some food’ when you’ve got Spam right there. So yeah. And I would love for Samoa to introduce taxes on meat coming into the country, but that’s not something that’s going to happen.
Rod Lamberts: Absolutely, right. I mean, I’m not telling you – of course you’re right, you know it – just, it really amazes me to watch how different perspectives can be, because we don’t have background information. And that absolutely, of course, it was introduced recently. There are good reasons to embrace it, very many good reasons. The nutritionist, however, nearly fell backwards in her chair, apparently, she was so shocked at the idea of it. And that just shows how little we can understand, or know, about people we’re talking at/with.
Bruce Burdon: A little bit to one side, I’ve been to Samoa a couple of times for meetings and do have family members, aunties, that are Samoan. And the issue in the broader food safety is, what are the ethics in trade? So yes, we may have send fatty lamb flaps to Pacific islands and, let’s say, poorer grade food. It’s not unsafe. It’s probably unhealthy. So ethics in food trade is probably for another day, but there’s certainly quite a bit in that, too.
Paul Dansted: So Rod talked about context being important several times. I just – that’s context TM, is going to be part of your trademark now, Rod. We’ve done a bit of testing about how our draft food safety strategy and what we’ve found is that consumers are really invested in safety. They get that it’s important, it matters to them, and they believe our system produces safe food. And we thought that’s great, we’re on the same page.
But we started digging a little bit deeper and we found what they mean by safety and what we mean by safety is not quite the same thing. So we’ve got a very technical view. It’s this probability times this illness, and you can kind of come up with a number. But when we talk to the public, what we hear is, yes, safety is important. What it means for the environment, what it means for animals, what it means for sustainability, what it means for this, what it means for that, including nutrition, et cetera. And that’s a much broader definition of safety than we’ve got. We would consider it wrong, but actually, if that’s our audience, we need to think what the audience is, what the context is. So that’s a statement.
The question I’m going to ask you, Bruce, in the context of your discussions with overseas authorities, what does safety mean for them? Because we can have an argument saying X level of illness, and that’s fine, they will agree with the science. And then as you said, they ask for a bit more. So what’s driving the bit more? And what does that mean?
Bruce Burdon: Good question, Paul. Thank you. It actually means different things to different parties. So we are dealing with government-to-government, so the safety in their mind is their food laws and their food requirements. So at the upper-end, of course, you won’t want anyone sick, or dying. But most of those governments’ import requirements are nothing to do with trade, but they’re reflective of their own domestic requirements, which are then driven by the consumers in those areas. So places where they’ve had foodborne incidents, like China with infant formula, then safety is obviously very important.
And by default, it becomes an import requirement from New Zealand, whether or not they believe we actually have safe infant formula there is another step to go to provide that assurance. And the US is exactly the same. STEC and E. coli in particular are very important to them, Jack in the Box deaths, and things like that. So their import requirements and what they require for meat, which is driven out of a domestic problem, is our problem from a trading party point of view. The EU, you can just see that reflected all over the place. So a lot of what’s happening domestically, rightly or wrongly, will drive our access issues.
And not all of that around safety either, so I think the more and more people become aware of a lot of other factors of their food, as we’re talking about either ethical, or animal welfare, or whatever, probably a climate footprint shortly, how much carbon went into it – they will become trade issues as well.
Audience question: For Bruce. So I find your view quite interesting in that, obviously, it’s a frustration for you that other countries have restrictive import requirements that New Zealand needs to… or inflexible for no other reason than they’re inflexible… But how do you reconcile that view with the import health standard systems, even though they’re currently under review where there are inflexibilities in the system? For example, let’s take pork. The import health standard for pork.
Bruce Burdon: I see you’ve gone straight for the jugular.
Audience question: I am. The importer has a 3 kg pack requirement. And at the border, often, those products are stuck, an entire shipment will be stuck if one pack is 4 grams over the 3 kg. So are you committed to ensuring that those inflexibilities are removed in the review of the import health standards? I’m USDA, by the way.
Bruce Burdon: Great question. I see the swine fever has reached East Timor today, so we’re probably going to end up with even more pressure from domestic Australia and New Zealand around that. But that’s a biosecurity issue, and I put ‘biosecurity accepted’ in brackets up there. But yes, in that context that the import health standards are around biosecurity controls, not food safety. Although we do hide behind them a bit because we’re kind of known for quite tough biosecurity controls, so, therefore, they never reach a food safety problem, because either the animal or plant health will stop it in the middle.
So I think, all I can say is, there’s 2 parts: there’s reviews of the import health standards, as they sit at the moment, but there is also a review of the entire Biosecurity Act and framework that they sit under. And all I can say is the outcome of that is to improve the transparency of the process, and to ensure that we do deliver… I’m just talking about outcomes for the review here, not promising anything for pork.
Audience question: I won’t report it I promise.
Bruce Burdon: No, no, no, no. Is that we do have consistent like-for-like outcomes and our appropriate level of protection that comes out of that system. So that’s into the future to try and address that problem. But if you talk about risk communication that we just heard about before, that’s exactly the scenario we have for pork, or poultry, in New Zealand, which are domestic-focused industries.
And we, as MPI, or importers, are asking those industries to take a risk, no matter how small, to enable you and I in New Zealand to have cheaper pork, or poultry, or those products. And they sit there, thinking, well, why should we take any risks? We’re not going to benefit from that whatsoever. So as decision makers, and MPI and the government has to balance those out. And we’re just not going to satisfy all the parties. So as you will know, it’s a pretty hard task.
Audience question: Yeah, good on you. That was a decent answer, I have to say. And Rod, for you, as far as science communication goes, I feel like, and correct me if I’m wrong, you’re on the verge of actually changing it from science communication to the discipline of science marketing and consumer engagement. How do you feel about that? And has that conversation been had?
Rod Lamberts: How do I feel about it? I’m happy to make it a sub-branch. It doesn’t scare me as much – I don’t think, from the perspective that I have, academic and related, I don’t consider us science marketers. I spend a lot of my time picking on science and scientists more than anything else, because I am concerned about that, just the sort of flag waving, rah, rah, rah-ness of it all. I think that’s a problem. And it leads us to bad conversations, or no conversations. So there are places and times when marketing is definitely necessary. And I think scientists should embrace it.
And I try to encourage them. And varying degrees of success, but there are other times when I’m quite anti, because it’s just awkward and embarrassing. Honestly, there’s no more a scholarly way of putting it, it’s like, stop it. People don’t want to hear that. And certain people aren’t interested. You love it. It’s great. Doesn’t mean other people love it. Why can’t you accept that?
It’s like when people tell me at home I should like Australian rules football. And I say, I don’t, because it means people go and play AFL instead of rugby, and we can’t beat you guys. They have to accept that in me. I’m not a fan of our own sport.
So I mean, this is what I think. So marketing: important, not always, horses for courses, context. Was that evasive enough?
Audience question: Yes, thank you.
Audience question: Kia ora. My name is Michelle. I work for Wellington City Council. This is a question for Dr Lamberts. So you had an interesting slide up there saying you don’t get to tell people what’s important to them. I work in food safety as a verifier and so that tends to be what I do all day.
Rod Lamberts: I’m sorry.
Audience question: And so I was just, sort of, curious, because in some ways, I like asking what isn’t important to an operator in terms of what they do, what processes they have in place, and I strongly believe that most of the customers that we have want to do the right thing and meet Food Safety Standards, but there’s also regulations in place that aren’t going to go away. So in order for them to meet those regulations and to be successful, do you think it’s a matter of just being constantly persuasive?
Rod Lamberts: Yeah, possibly. And if the reality is if they want to operate in a space and those rules are the rules, the feelings don’t matter a lot. Honestly, I mean, this is another, kind of, implicit myth that I hear. People don’t say it, but what they’re really asking me is, ‘How do we make this all go beautifully smoothly and everyone will be happy?’ And I’ll smile politely, and say, ‘I don’t think you can.’ ‘Well then how do we make people do what we want them to do, because we know it’s right?’ I say, ‘Guns, or money.’ And that’s not popular either. So I mean, in the end, not everyone’s going to be happy.
But you can talk about trade-offs with them and say, well, the reality of this situation is X. If you don’t like it, here are mechanisms for changing it. But some people aren’t going to like it. We’re all grown-ups. We have to make decisions, and we have to sometimes just bite down and bear it. So I don’t want to paint this rosy view of perfection here, because I don’t think it exists. I’ve not seen evidence of it yet. Don’t be afraid of the fact that some people will be pissed off, because they will. That’s OK. In fact, it doesn’t matter – it’s inevitable. Someone’s going to be mad with you. So that’s cool.
Honestly, though, I think this is the mistake, that they’re going to come up with this magic bullet that will solve the problems of people accepting things, being happy with regulations, being happy with restrictions, and some people won’t be. I think that’s human condition stuff. Let’s generalize wildly, but I think it is. So that’s all right. Get a good therapist – I don’t know. Help deal with yourself, maybe. I’m not suggesting you need therapy, just in case.
Paul Dansted: Rod talked about rugby before. So we had dinner last night with another couple – that’s not quite how I meant to describe it, but we got on really well. So Rod and I, we started talking about rugby, as a couple of blokes do. It was pretty obvious from the other party’s point of view, we knew nothing about rugby, neither of us knew about it. But we talked, and it was kind of irrelevant. What we were sort of doing is sort of exploring each other, figuring out what our values were, et cetera, et cetera. And it occurred to me, that’s pretty normal. That’s what people do. When they first start having a conversation, you kind of try and find out, where is this person coming from? The substance doesn’t really matter.
So I guess my question for you, Rod, is, you had this thing up there, I’ll see it when I believe it, and you then talked about values and assumptions and so on behind it. Would you recommend that if we are trying to go into a conversation that we suspect will be contentious, should we spend time exploring what those values are, et cetera, including our own, potentially, before we get into the substance? And I’m assuming there’s a kind of a, yes. And my follow up question would be, if so, how?
Rod Lamberts: Kind of, yes, Paul. Again, it’s going to depend on the interactions, the power relationships, all those good things. Also, the cultural mores of the area you’re going into – I mean, Australians can be pretty brusque, direct, and don’t care about context at times, and other times you need to, kind of, wine and dine us before we’ll start talking to you honestly. So picking that is important.
But the main thing, I’d say, is authenticity. If you go in and obviously are bullshitting, it’s going to stand out a mile away. And particularly, I mean, middle aged, overeducated white male, what is it? Cisnormative, blah. I’m all the things that’s terrible and wicked now. And I accept that. I’ve had a wonderful life. It’s all very privileged, et cetera. So that already puts you behind the eight ball. You seem insincere, almost by definition, if you’re not careful.
But if you go in and fake it, ‘Oh, no, I really care about you people. I think it’s great. Tell me more.’ You look stupid. And you look terrible, and you alienate. So I think this is the authenticity thing that matters, which is why I do swear in public fora, because I swear. It’s genuinely me and the way I interact with the world. If I start to be all polite and careful, I’d look fake. And that doesn’t help. So I can’t tell you what authenticity is for you, whatever, but I can say that if it feels fake, it probably is, and that’s going to stand out.
Audience question: Bruce, you talked about MFAT’s statement of intent being around delivering on New Zealand’s values. I don’t know what New Zealand’s values are. I’m pretty sure the prime minister doesn’t. She talked about them a lot after March 15. But I was wondering if, you being from the government, have any clue as to what New Zealand’s values are?
The second question, Rob, while Bruce is grappling with that one. Rod, why are we living in a world that is, perhaps, the safest it’s ever been, that we’re the most travelled at any time in history, yet we’re so increasingly afraid of everything, and so xenophobic about everything? How can you reconcile that for me, please?
Bruce Burdon: I’ll take your question on notice and forward it to Jacinda. But to some extent, and I think you would recognize with your time that you had been with, let’s say, MPI, or your current agency, that sometimes agencies have grappled with values, what they are. And as a society, it’s my understanding that MPI has kind of deleted the values that we used to have and have gone more for strategic outcomes focused in the way we work as a general acknowledgment of values. So I really can’t answer what New Zealand government, or other values are. Sorry.
I think you can imply them from a whole range of things is what we do within our own environment here, but stated values and things… we have aspirations, we have goals, and we are expected to work ethically. The word ‘social license to operate’ comes up quite a bit now with government. This government’s about to, to put my trade hat on, release its ‘trade for all’ policy. There’s certain values and outcomes in there that will be big drivers for MPI in New Zealand as well.
Rod Lamberts: That was a smooth answer. I don’t know what to do with mine now. I think, can I just say on values, I think we’re better at pointing at something and saying, ‘That does not align with my values,’ rather than articulate what our values are. We’re very good at seeing them when they’re not, and not as good at identifying – it’s like, health is the absence of illness, but other than the absence of illness, what is health?
Go, break out into small groups, talk about that for 15 minutes, and you’ll come away more confused than when you started. So I think values is a tough one. In terms of, what was it? Why are we more frightened even though we’re safer than ever, and stuff like that?
Good question. Complex question. I think there are a number of things going on. I’ll tell you, honestly, one of them is – my first and my cynical response is because we have time to be, particularly in countries like Australia and here. We’ve got plenty of time to worry about stuff. And I use that as an example of how wealthy we all are.
People have time to worry about the tiniest little things and talk about how terrible they are, blow them out of proportion over a few chardonnays and delicious pork from New Zealand. So we can. And, of course, that’s not the same all over the world. But in terms of that, we have more information than ever. We’re safer than ever. The speed with which information transfers, as we know, is stronger. It is easier to only hear the stuff that resonates with your values, if you so choose. So you get these resonance chambers of fear. And it’s not directly my realm of expertise, but I hang around with people like this. We know in times of perceived uncertainty, people err to the conservative, and they err to their own tribe, whatever their tribe is.
And I think we’re seeing a lot of that going on, where the more we’re frightened, for real or fake reasons, the more we start to look inward rather than outward. And the facts, again, have nothing to do with it. Yeah, there’s a huge availability of facts, but that’s also drinking from a fire hose. So which fact do you take? How do you filter through it? I mean, these are really simplistic answers. This is like a 5-beer long night conversation, really. Yeah. There’s the kick off though.
Paul Dansted: Sorry. Gentleman in the back.
Audience question: I was just going to carry on the conversation and say, yeah, that’s also the fact that we’re – I’m including myself in this because I’m also a New Zealand citizen, we can afford to be. We can afford to be.
Like, when you don’t have any money, and you have a lot to worry about, for instance, if you’ve got kids, if you have a house, or family, that you have to look after that isn’t necessarily your own children, other dependents… Most of us here will have time on our hands, and money on our hands, and the literal knowledge and understanding to afford to be able to worry about all these things, because it never got pointed out to us before that we were doing something wrong. Now, every day we’re starting to understand that, hey, maybe what we’re doing may not be the best course of action, may not be the right thing to do.
And so we have to look at that, make an assessment, and make the judgement whether we should be affording to ruin our own world, or ruin our own country, or, in my case, work in another country and try and do the best I can with what we’ve got. And it is something that we are allowed and can afford to do, worry about our future.
Rod Lamberts: I’ll tell you a story that I heard from people who were in Cape Town not that long ago – I think it was Cape Town, South Africa – talking about how there were young mothers deliberately getting infected with HIV. And the reason was, the government at the time, I don’t know if it’s still going on, would offer food vouchers to people who had HIV and couldn’t work, or had children, et cetera. And this is eyebrow-raising for people in these safe towns like yours and mine and so forth. But the short-term priority was, I don’t want my kids to starve. I’ll handle the HIV thing later, because I can eat. And I don’t think – I’m looking around the room, none of you look like you’re in that position. I know I’m not. So yeah, reinforcing that, we have time. We have the time and the luxury to worry about a lot of stuff. Lucky us.
Paul Dansted: Thank you. Gayle. Oh, sorry, Bruce.
Bruce Burdon: And that’s something we do need to conscious of, and we do hear it back from our trading partners and things. And we might talk about labelling your fat content, or no sugars, and things. And I was doing that once, and then I felt a little bit small and arrogant in a sense when, actually, it was a minister come back to me, and say, well, actually, I’ve got 50 million people where I’m worried about where the next meal is coming from. So you have to put things into context.
Audience question: Rod, when you brought up the little clips about the small messages, and I was thinking along the lines that we have valuable scientific messages that might be complex and need to be put into context. And yet, we’ve got Twitter, and other things, being used rapidly to pass messages, which could be very polarizing for people.
So how can we use that new public media, and this is for our MPI messages and changes, our New Zealand Food Safety messages, how would you recommend that we can utilize it to, both help convey messages that are worthwhile conveying, and to receive feedback, and to deliver another means of delivering our messages, which we certainly don’t use in our long documents on our MPI website, if you’ve looked at that recently?
Paul Dansted: So Rod and Bruce, you’ve got 30 seconds each.
Rod Lamberts: OK. Through a government department you want to get involved in Twitter and things like that. For starters, you need to remove pretty much every barrier and everything that time-restricts people’s ability to respond. That will never happen, as far as I understand it. But honestly, these media do not wait for 45 minutes for someone to decide.
So if you can’t respond quickly to a medium like Twitter, I don’t know, get off Twitter, or only make announcements. The only other thing I’ll ask/say is, again, back to goals, if your message is to convey the science, that’s fine, but make sure that is what you’re trying to do. It could just be the messages. ‘I want you to know, there’s a bunch of really deep and intense science going on in places in our area. If you want to know more, go here.’ That’s it.
Appeal to the people who might want to know that, and just be honest. This is about telling about some science we’ve done, not, we want you to change your behaviour in X, Y, and Z ways. This document that has been done in a chemistry lab tells you why, because it doesn’t. It’s a different thing. So message clarity, really break it down in symbols. But if you’ve got to wait an hour and a half to respond to a tweet, it’s gone. So just change the government policies. We have that in Australia, too. We need a social media strategy to say, cool, start by removing the restrictions, short meeting.
Bruce Burdon: And therein lies a double-edged sword for a government department. So yes, the social media – we’ve had our foreign governments telling us about food recalls that we didn’t know about in Wellington, but they’re asking us, did you export to anywhere? So yes, we have to be responsive, but we actually have to be responsible in those responses as well. So not get onto a bandwagon and BS or – because you’ll lose your credibility straight away. So if we have the material pre-prepared, or whatever, then away you go, otherwise, you just need time and space to get the, I want to say, the right messages. You just can’t –
Audience member: It’s more about engagement.
Bruce Burdon: Yeah. And I think worldwide it’s going to become an even greater problem, because the social media is always going to be ahead of slow bureaucracies in getting messages out.
Rod Lamberts: Can I tell you a great success story?
Paul Dansted: Sure. Oh, can we get back – Yeah, yeah. OK, Rod. Knock yourself out.
Rod Lamberts: A buddy of mine is a science writer, communication, storytelling, science dude in the States, and he was talking about the Centers for Disease Control. There was a situation where they wanted to get people to get outbreak, and plague, et cetera, preparedness kits, and convince people how important it was. They needed water and a hand-wound torch, et cetera.
And a couple of people went rogue in the CDC, and said, you know what, this is exactly what you need if a zombie outbreak happened. And that’s how they promoted it. They crashed the servers within hours. They made Fox News. They got so many hits. So much cut through.
Did they lose credibility? Maybe? But a lot of other people took them a lot more seriously, or interested in hearing from them again. I’m not recommending it. I’m saying, it’s remarkable what the effect can be. Suddenly people had preparedness kits, because they put it in zombie language. So you may be surprised. It’s risky. But who needs a job?
Paul Dansted: Thank you, Rod. We will take that one under consideration. Hey, look, I will draw a close under it now. Thank you very much for your participation. They have been great questions. It’s certainly – yeah, actually, thank you, guys.
[End of transcript]
1. Food regulations and their effects on international trade agreements
This lecture examines how governments are modernising food safety systems to facilitate trade, recognising the complicated issues that are associated with international trade and how we provide assurances around food and food safety to our offshore partners.
2. Communicating science to lay people
Rod presents on the topic of science communication with more focus on risk, persuasion, and ethics. He addresses many of the issues and challenges scientists and government regulators face in the digital age, with a nod to how we discuss complicated food safety issues and topics.
Bruce Burdon (manager of market access liaison and cooperation, Ministry for Primary Industries)
Bruce is the manager of market access liaison and cooperation, in the policy and trade branch of the Ministry for Primary Industries. He has extensive experience in the development and implementation of food safety and food trade law. His previous role was chief advisor for regulatory reform at the Ministry of Economic Development, focusing on improving the quality of regulatory (market) design and strengthening the economic growth focus of the regulatory environment. Prior to that Bruce was deputy director (policy) at the New Zealand Food Safety Authority focusing on leading 4 food policy teams, setting strategic food policy direction, and the review, development, reform, implementation, and evaluation of legislation in line with that direction.
Dr Rod Lamberts (deputy director, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science)
Dr Rod Lamberts is deputy director of the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) at the Australian National University and a former national president of the Australian Science Communicators (retired injured in 2013). He has more than 20 years’ experience as a science communication practitioner and researcher, and designed and delivered some of the first university science communication courses in Australia.
Paul Dansted (director of food regulation, New Zealand Food Safety)
Paul is the director of food regulation in the New Zealand Food Safety business unit of the Ministry for Primary Industries. His directorate is responsible for developing food production, processing, testing, and import and export standards. The directorate spends most of its time on working with the food industry to meet these standards and to produce safe and suitable food. Paul started his professional life as a policy analyst, and has worked in policy, operations, science, and regulatory roles. He has contributed to and led development of international food standards.
Video – New Zealanders benefiting from food technology (1:14.56)
John Roche, chief science advisor, New Zealand Food Safety: Kia ora tatou, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks, Paul. We do try and get science its appropriate place and policy setting. So my job here today is, as Paul said, is to talk about regaining consumer trust in the digital age.
Now, I'm a biophysical scientist by training. The social sciences were something completely alien to me until my frustrations probably overflowed in the people we target our research at not actually taking up our recommendations, no matter how compelling the argument was. And so I've delved deeper into that subject to try and understand it to a greater degree. So the… I don't claim expertise in this. These are my musings and I welcome discussion and questions afterwards.
So to start off – look, Ralph Waldo Emerson said it in a way that I could never say it, or as succinctly anyway, is that the first farmer was the first man and all of historic nobility rests on the possession and use of land. And if you were to extend that, that is to food production systems. So the people that produce food for the masses deserve better of humanity, to use Jonathan Swift's eloquent prose.
And if you look at the success that we've had, certainly over the last 50 years since Norman Borlaug's major revolution in the genetics of crops and a succession of agricultural chemicals, and fertilizers, et cetera, that have come through that time, we have managed to increase the population of the world by over 3 billion people and shrink the number of people undernourished by nearly 250 million at the same time. So we're feeding in excess of 3 billion more people now than we were when Norman Borlaug accepted that challenge.
So you would think that there would be a time to celebrate. But if you look at any of the surveys that are out there – New Zealand, it's not just New Zealand, but certainly, obviously, our newspapers highlight it in New Zealand, but it's pan global. Farmers are despondent. We're going through a period – a halcyon period, if you will, of stable commodity prices that are historically high, bank interest rates that are historically low, really low unemployment levels, and yet farmers actually believe – and by farmers, I'm using the term quite liberally to orchardists, fisher people, et cetera, as well – are quite despondent about the future of their professions.
And so why is that? Well, look, there's a few obvious examples. One of the ones that sprung to mind to me over the weekend was a litany of pseudoscience articles that have proliferated over the last year in particular, but it's been building, that basically attack particularly animal agriculture for its role in human health and environmental degradation. And, of, course, that fuels also the social media side of things with NGOs and activist groups suddenly stringently attacking that sector as well.
And, of course, the world has changed. We now have a different type of bully. It's very, very easy to be a 6' 4" Olympic powerlifter and streetfighting god when you're pushing keyboard keys to actually achieve those accolades. But you'd be forgiven for thinking that we have an absolute black and white choice. Either we have animals in our diets or we have a healthy climate, you can't have both. Or, you have a healthy environment, we can't have both.
And Jack Bobo, the CEO of a future food company, has said that people have never cared more nor known less about how their food is produced. And I think that speaks to a lot of why we're seeing that contradiction of an environment that should be conducive to positivity in the food production sector. And yet, that sector is very heavily influenced by negative feelings.
And I would argue this is a really, really important topic because we have a massive challenge facing us. This is the calorie requirements for us to produce to feed the population of the world over the last 2,000 years and through for the next 30. Now to put things in perspective, we have to produce almost as much food in the next 30 years as we have in the last 2,000. That's just in terms of calories. That's not in terms of nutrition. That's just in terms of meeting our energetic needs, never mind the amino acid and micronutrient needs that go with that. It's a massive, massive challenge.
So to move on to the topic, I'd like to break it down into 3 parts. How do people form their opinions? I mean, what has led to this level of despondency. I threw up a couple of examples there, but they obviously have underlying reasons as well. Let's talk about consumer trust, and what it means, and certainly what it means for us going forward as a food exporting nation. And we'll talk about the digital age and what difference that makes.
So let me dwell for a minute. Again, these are my musings, not saying anything categorically as fact, but really interested in your opinion as we discuss this afterwards. So people set their own standards. We all have our principles and we set our standards. This was a really interesting experiment that was published in Science last year. And I'll take a few seconds to explain this particular slide because there's a couple of slides coming and the graphs are very, very similar.
So this was an experiment where they took people and they, as individuals, they put them into a booth to show them a computer screen and they gave them two buttons – blue or not blue. And then they flash dots up on the screen that were a variation of from blue all the way through to purple and everything in between. And they asked the people to categorize were they looking at blue or were they looking at not blue.
And so on the X-axis, you have got on the left hand side you got very purple all the way through the very blue. And up the y-axis we've got the percent of dots identified as blue, so it's a pretty strong relationship. Obviously, no colour-blind people inside this experiment. And the bluer the dot, the more it was categorized as blue.
But then in their treatment group, they reduced the number of blue dots in the last two – they were showing these 1,000 times – there was, sorry, 1,000 images. In the last 200 of them, they reduced the number of blue dots deliberately. And what they found was that people started categorizing purple dots as blue. So there was an automatic shift in the people's benchmark.
Now, you might say, well, OK, it's an interesting academic find, but they went on. They did this experiment multiple times. They actually told people that they were going to reduce the number of blue dots. They still ended up with the same slide. They encouraged them to be consistent, they offered them money to be consistent, and they still ended up with people's view shifting.
But they wanted to see if this also worked in complex situations. So they they showed people 800 images of faces from threatening through to non-threatening. And, again, you'll notice actually in the last slide probably that there's quite a bit of variation around these lines because obviously purple, blue – somebody's going to hit a blue button, somebody else might get a purple button.
With threatening faces versus non-threatening faces, there's very little error in here. We've all got a very standard view of what's threatening, what's not threatening. But, again, in the treatment group for the last 200 of the images, they reduced the number of threatening faces, and what they found was that, again, people changed. What previously had been non-threatening faces now became threatening.
And they did a further experiment where they gave people research experiment proposals that were a plethora from very ethical to very non-ethical and again people assigned them and assigned them relatively correctly. There's a degree of variation here, as you'd expect. And then in their treatment group they reduced the number of non-ethical proposals that were being presented and what they found, again, was that proposals that had previously been regarded as ethical were now being viewed as non-ethical. So people's standards change, and that's really important.
Second point I want to talk about is what constitutes evidence in a post-science world? So this is a paper that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US 2 years ago. And what it was was an analysis of Twitter, a half a million tweets, and how they were shared and what factors were involved in them being shared. So on the x-axis here we've got the number of words in the tweet or the y-axis is effectively the proliferation of that tweet.
And A is tweets about gun control, so these are moral subjects. A, gun control. B, same sex marriage. C, climate change. And you can see it doesn't matter how detailed the tweet was. Tweets, obviously, can't be too detailed, but doesn't really matter how detailed are the tweet was. There was no proliferation of the tweet.
However, if you include emotional language in your tweet, you can see an exponential increase in the retweeting activity of that. So people are more driven by emotion than they are driven by facts. Again, that's not a surprise, but here's some quantitative evidence – recent quantitative evidence that suggest it.
And Steven Pinker, the Canadian psychologist, has highlighted this ironically in an opinion piece in The Guardian, one of the worst purveyors of this type of stuff. But basically his point was that the media has exaggerated negative news to such an extent that people actually believe that the world is getting worse in every metric. You never see a news story for example about Syria that nobody died here today. Instead, you see the news story that says that people were slaughtered, died in a civil war. So people get a very, very polarized opinion about what the news is.
And just, again, to put some quantitative evidence on this. This was a paper published a few years ago by Professor Leroy out of Belgium. And he was looking at The Guardian newspaper ironically and what happened to the length of the headlines. This was in health and nutrition. And around 2006 you see this exponential increase in the number of words, and it's still increasing, being used in newspaper headings – so the emotive language that was being added to the headlines to generate what I just showed you in that previous slide.
The third factor I want to talk about here, in terms of how people set their opinions, is confirmation bias. Now, we have an evolutionary drive towards confirmation bias. We collect together in tribes of people that agree with us to go and fight neighbouring tribes that disagree with us. This is the basis of human civilization – confirmation bias. But again, we're in a world where this has changed.
So this is the same paper that was in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Each dot – and it's the same data, so it's dealing with gun control, same sex marriage, climate change – is a tweet and each line is a retweet. And what they've done is they've overlaid the political ideology of the group. So you have the Democrats on the left-hand side and the Republicans on the right-hand side.
And what I take from that graph is that there is absolutely no sharing of information between the different political ideologies. They only share among themselves. So confirmation bias is being generated. And when you think that the statistics are that approximately 75% of Americans now get their news from social media, and social media curates the news so that if you like something that’s what your news feed gets populated with, we are seeing a world of dividing opinions and basically reinforcement of our own beliefs.
And it frightens me, actually. I have an instruction to my wife and children is that when my name is ever a newspaper, never read the comments beneath the newspaper. Because the level of hatred and vitriol that is poured out in those comments sections, that's poured out on the social media, is extraordinary.
Now, people have said to me, it's always been that way, we've just provided them a forum for it. I don't remember that. I didn't grow up in a world that level of hatred. So to me, it's quite scary, and it doesn't take much for this to generate a platform for ideologues like we see around the world now elected into power in different countries.
And, of course, we see a plethora of people – and I've used a particular view here. I have no problem with veganism, I can assure you, until they start questioning my dietary habits. But this is the type of emotional media that is spread around through those social media challenges. So it automatically drums up that support, and it gets shared to a greater degree.
So moving on quickly, I want to talk briefly about the digital age, because this one, I think, is pretty short. And people's main concern, I believe, about the digital age, is that digital media are used to provide information that is not objective and is used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively to encourage a particular synthesis of perception. Ladies and gentlemen, that is a textbook dictionary definition of propaganda, and propaganda is not new.
Two and half thousand years ago, Darius the Great had his version of history inscribed in the Behistun walls in Iran in 3 different languages – the only 3 languages available at the time. That is our first recorded instance of propaganda. It's been with us a long time.
But somehow, the belief that now this technology is available, it has set a platform for people to further views, often which are negative, and actually use them to get seemingly good people to do relatively unspeakable things. I mean, you look at this picture, these people aren't the hardcore white supremacists that you would normally associate with this type of protest. But tell me, how is that different to this family setting in 1938 Germany, listening to this man, encouraging good people to do unspeakable acts. It's no different.
So, in my opinion, the digital era is actually a little bit of a misnomer. So propaganda is the same. It's been with us for a long time. We understand it a bit better.
There's no question about it. The medium is a bit more pervasive – and I'll talk about that later. But importantly, we use the same media. So we're not at a disadvantage here, if we understand what people want.
So let me talk about consumer trust. And it's really… my challenge here was consumer trust in science. And the question, really, I'm asking is, does New Zealand have a science denial problem? So Peter has spoken a lot about this, and he'd certainly argue that we do. When you think about it, we've got anti-GM lobbies, we've got anti-1080 lobbies, we've got anti-fluoride lobbies, we've got anti- chlorine lobbies, and we've got anti-vaccination lobbies. And our supermarkets and pharmacies are full of products that not only have not been proven to work, but many of them have a proven not to work.
So yes, I would argue that New Zealand probably does have a science denial problem. But if we look at it, what do Kiwis say about science? Why would that be the case? Because I think it's important – if we're going to unpick this, if we are going to regain that consumer trust, we really need to understand why have we got that problem.
So what do Kiwis think about science. So this is a Nielsen survey from 2014. 90% of them think it's an important subject to study. 83% think it's a worthwhile career to pursue. Obviously, they have no idea what we earn.
59% think science is important in their daily lives. Now, I don't know what planet the other 41% live on, but 59% apparently think science is important in their daily lives. 42% believe there is too little information about science. 35% believe it's too specialized to understand. And that's an important point that I think we need to think about. 51% believe that there's too much conflicting information. So you've got equally-qualified scientists saying apparently opposite things.
And one of the things that I think is most important though is that 62% of people believe that scientists need to listen to what ordinary people think, that we're not getting through. And if you think about it, the homeopathy revolution has occurred because doctors don't have time to listen to their patients in the same way as they may have 20, 30, 40 years ago.
Why don't they trust us? All the surveys, all over the world, suggest that somewhere between 40% and 50% of people trust scientists. We're right up there with doctors. We're slightly ahead of politicians, thankfully. Well, because, we've never done anything that should lead us to distrust have we? Yet we stand on pedestals and wonder why they don't just trust us to interfere with their food.
They want greater discussion about these things. And they also know who to believe. So if you look at Time magazine, the front cover of Time magazine in 1961 had Ancel Keys telling people he wouldn't allow his family to eat red meat more than once a week, that it was the cause of heart disease, in his opinion, in his qualified opinion. And as someone that was world-famous as a nutritionist had great influence.
In 1999, the cover of Time magazine was you shouldn't eat any animal products at all, because cholesterol was what was driving this, and cholesterol was going to kill you. And 15 years later, in 2014, they acknowledged, sorry, guys, we got it wrong, animal fat is fine. Eat away to your heart's content. And over that 50-year period, we ran the largest experiment in human history where we compare carnivores to carbivores and our health service system is all dealing with the consequences of it.
So scientists, I would argue, are part of the problem. And I'm going to put up a point of embarrassment here. This used to be a quote sitting below my email signature up until about five years ago. My argument was, the facts are the facts, and if you don't want them, you're going to accept them. It was never very successful for me, as I look back on it.
And is it true that all people really need is to hear the facts? So this is a really interesting experiment done by the University of British Columbia. The animal welfare team there is world-renowned. And what they did was they brought in a group of people from Vancouver, and they didn't know anything about dairy farming. They asked them questions about dairy farming to prove that they didn't know anything about dairy farming.
And I've told this story to dairy farmers, and I can see them nudging each other in the audience, going, you see, told you. The problem is, they don't know anything about dairy farming. We just need to teach them.
So they didn't know anything about dairy farming, and then they ran a survey. The question was, how confident are you that dairy cattle have a good life? And nearly half the respondents were confident that dairy cattle had a good life. Approximately a third of them were neutral on it, and approximately a third of them were not confident.
And then they went back and they gave them the answers to questions that they first asked them, to teach them about dairy farming. And then they reran the survey. And the informed public, they lost 50% of the people that thought the dairy cows had a good standard of living. Now, this is a housed cow situation – cows are indoors, et cetera – and people in cities didn't actually understand this. So there was a whole pile of things they didn't understand.
But this is education, so it's not just about the facts. And it certainly isn't about standing on a pedestal and saying, ‘Look, trust me, I work for the government. I'm here to help.’ Or ‘Trust me, I'm a scientist or trust me, I'm a doctor.’
That trust has to be earned. And as Teddy Roosevelt said, no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. And I think that's the great thing that we've been missing from the scientific extension model, actually until very, very recently.
We now have an incredibly well-fed population in the developed world – overfed for the most part, overfed with the wrong foods, certainly, at times – but living in an era of peace that we haven't seen ever in the history of humans since World War II. We dealt with conflicts in isolated regions. We haven't dealt with the large majority of people in the world fighting in wars for more than 50 to 60 years.
Now, to me, there is still a good news story. So I'm not meaning to be despondent here. And one of the best as quotes that I share with my PhD students and my master's students – one of the best quotes I've seen about science – from Peter Medawar is, ‘I cannot give any scientist of any age better advice than this, and that's that the intensity of the conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing on whether it is true or not.’ And you should be able to channel our passion into our research. But we need to recognize that science is not simple, that these complex issues don't all have simple solutions.
And to be part of the solution, we must be more humble. The consumer's concerns are valid, even if you think they aren't. So many of us have discussions about vaccinations, and obviously, the current measles outbreak and epidemic is raising those discussions again. And there's one thing I think we can agree on, that parents that vaccinate their children and parents that don't vaccinate their children love their children. So no parent is not vaccinating their child because they hate their child.
But the course of science over the last decade has been to ridicule those people. It has been to drive them into their own groups, where you get the type of confirmation bias that I talked about earlier. Instead, we need to recognize their concerns. I was talking with Paul before we stood up here – one of the issues I had was that doctors used to tell people that there is no risk. That's not true. There is a risk. You're 10 times more likely to be struck by lightning, but there is still a risk.
And, of course, what does the media do? The media doesn't run news reports every night showing you the statistics of all the people that never had an allergic reaction to the MMR vaccine. But the minute we have a child die from an MMR vaccine, that's on the news. And so people's view of the world is completely skewed. So there is a reason why they should be concerned, and there is a reason why the scientific community should take those concerns seriously.
We must empathize. We must be able to walk a mile in our shoes. And we must be genuine and that empathy as well, because trust is a really fragile thing. It's hard to earn. And once it's broken, it's really, really hard to regain.
So look, I think there is a positive story here and particularly for New Zealand. Our food production system is… ‘unique’ is probably a very strong word, but it is very, very close to unique in terms of how we produce food in this country. And increasingly, the wealthy of the world are buying a process rather than a product.
They're carnivore, they're vegetarian, they're flexitarian. There's different ethical, and moral, and taste, and ethnicity preferences that the sellers of food all over the world are lining up to provide those choices as easy as possible. And we fill those needs in a lot of cases.
When you think about it, we have an incredibly emotional process to sell. We produce the highest quality, wholesome foods. The best piece of advice I was ever given in terms of maintaining a healthy diet was, go to your supermarket and walk around the outside aisle. Don't go up and down the middle sections.
And you'll get the fruit and veg, you'll get the meat, you'll get the milk – well, I'm thinking of my own supermarket – you'll get the cheese, and yogurt, et cetera. And then you come down to the alcohol aisle. So you get all of the really good things and you avoid all of those processed individuals.
We produce the highest quality wholesome food in this country, and it's something we should be singing from the rooftops. We're not processing it. We're not creating that carbivore environment. We have a trusted food safety system – all over the world, an incredibly trusted system that we will not make people sick. Almost all landed fish species are sustainably harvested. Again, we have a very stringent quota system to maintain our biodiversity of the ocean.
We have free range animals, producing low carbon footprint, nutritious food. And if you move beyond the carbon footprint of calories, and if you move beyond greenhouse gas emissions to warming effect, we produce extremely high quality food with a very low carbon footprint. We can put lamb, and beef, and dairy products on a supermarket shelf in the UK at a lower carbon footprint than a UK farmer can. That's an extraordinary story. We need to tell that story.
We produce high quality timber for building, particularly in South East Asia, and we have a biosecurity system that is second to no one. And that's including even our neighbours across the ditch. Our biosecurity system is extremely, extremely strong. Again, the media does not give it the credit it deserves. It focuses in on Mycoplasma bovis, a cattle disease that has never been eradicated by anybody. And I obviously have had a deep role in that. And, at least at this point, it looks like we're winning that war.
But that's the one that's focused on. There's very little talk about fruit fly. And when we have fruit fly incursions, how fast the New Zealand biosecurity system stands up, shuts it down, and keeps trade flowing. We have a really strong biosecurity system.
We have a wonderful country. We have the geographical area of the United Kingdom with 4.5 million people. We have massive areas of wilderness – still wilderness – for us to enjoy on Sunday walks, or multi-day hikes, or whatever, and extremely well-maintained by the service providers that maintain them. We're very, very fortunate. And yet, you wouldn't think it.
I remember, one of my last visits to the UK, working with farmers over there, one of the farmers asked me, what the hell are you doing over there? Because they were getting the newspaper articles from New Zealand, talking about how degraded our environment was. And there was an article in the New York Times last month, I'm not sure if you saw it, from a prominent New Zealand scientist. And having read that article, you would be forgiven for thinking that we didn't have rivers of sewage flowing through the Southern Alps of New Zealand.
I'm not saying we don't have our problems. What I'm saying is we have a fantastic story to tell. We need to fix our problems as well.
But I just want to put up this quote from Bill Clinton, because I think some of you probably have seen it. I pulled it off a tourist site last night. He said, ‘Every person dreams of finding an enchanted place with beautiful mountains and breathtaking coastlines, clear lakes and amazing wildlife, but most people give up on it because they've never been to New Zealand.’
That is a former president of the United States. That's how he talks about us. How many New Zealanders do you know that talk about us in that way? How many in the New Zealand press do you know that talk about us in that way?
But – and I do want to stress this – we must genuinely engage with consumer concerns. So despite all the positives I've just said, we've got fishing by-catch and biodiversity challenges that we need to deal with. We've got animal welfare problems that we need to deal with.
We've got to make our waterways as sustainable as the general public in New Zealand require. We've got climate change. We've got our contribution to climate change, and we are going to have to adapt to climate change. And we produce food, large quantities of it, and we use all of the technological advantages older than genetic modification to help us do that.
So we need to embrace people's fears and concerns genuinely, and answer them. And we need to recognize, as I said earlier, that those expectations will continue to change. So when we meet the standards they're setting for us now, those standards are going to become more stringent. Remember those lines, moving to the left – when you take away unethical proposals, ethical proposals then became unethical, in their view.
So to summarize, ladies and gentlemen, propaganda has been pervasive for millennia. There's nothing new here. The media is certainly more pervasive. Propaganda has always been controlled by the people that hold the airwaves. Now, everyone holds the airwaves, so I'm not doubting that it's more pervasive. But the actual act of propaganda is exactly the same.
There's nothing truer than we have lost consumer trust on a number of these things as well. And that's largely by not listening to their concerns with respect. It's partly through egotism – look at what we used to do 30 years ago and look at what we're doing now. We're so much better. That's true. They'll acknowledge that. But we want you to be so much better again.
Educating the consumer is not the solution. We must tell our good news stories, no question about it, and we must engage, be humble, and be empathetic. But we must acknowledge the validity of their concerns and address them.
So ladies and gentlemen, that's me done. Sorry, I should have said from the start that I was Irish and you'd have to listen really, really quickly to keep up with me. But hopefully there's some things in there that will generate discussion when we have our panel time.
And if you want to follow me, email addresses is up there. I've got three Facebook pages. I've put 2 of them up there. And I'm on Twitter as well, for my sins. So thank you.
[End of transcript]
Fiona Thomson-Carter, director of food science and risk assessment, Ministry for Primary Industries: Thank you, Paul. Kia ora. I'll just give you a moment while you get the chance to tune in to another northern hemisphere accent. I'm not Irish, I'm Scottish. And I'm going to tell you a little a bit of Scottish history. And it's great to be here today. So we'll just get into it.
The title of his presentation is Impact of Foodborne Illness for New Zealand, Not Just an Upset Stomach. I've heard that a lot in New Zealand. Oh, I was just crook for a couple of days. It's nothing really to worry about. But overall, when we're looking at the impacts, economic and societal, of foodborne disease, it is a big issue.
So as Paul has said, I'm director of food science and risk assessment, and have been for about 2 and a half months now. I lead a team of approximately 30 scientists who've got experience and scientific knowledge in microbiology, chemistry, toxicology, and food science in general. And we provide evidence-based advice for New Zealand Food Safety, the wider ministry, across government to many, many external stakeholders. And we work with the science community in New Zealand, and some of the data that I'll be showing were generated by colleagues from ESR.
So we assess and describe risks associated with food consumption, whether microbiological, chemical, radiological, or physical. And thinking about physical, it's really about you see food recalls in the paper, where glass or plastic has been found in different foodstuffs. And our scientists tap into international science knowledge using New Zealand-specific information, of course, and increasingly mātauranga Māori to inform and advise. Our draft strategy, which you may have had the chance to submit upon has the got the bold vision of New Zealand food can be trusted by everyone everywhere, whether domestic or export.
I'm a microbiologist. I'm really passionate about bacteria. I'm going to put a microbiological emphasis in this presentation, rather than chemical food safety, as the data for the microbes are more robust.
But infectious diseases are still a major public health issue, worldwide. In the 1960s, one of the American surgeon generals very confidently stated that we can close the book on infectious disease. We've got antibiotics now – it's all over. Well, look what has happened since.
Infectious diseases are a major public health issue. Their impact is often underestimated, because there are gaps in surveillance systems, whether within New Zealand or worldwide. We're seeing an increase in AMR – antimicrobial resistance – and we're concerned about any implications that there could be for food safety. And also, the emergence of new bacteria and viruses present new challenges.
Since the Americans surgeon general made his bold but premature statement, a whole swathe of new bacteria and viruses have emerged. Lassa fever, Ebola, Haemophilus influenzae, and the really nasty E. colis. My mother, who's from a farming background in the north of Scotland, would say to me, when I was working on E. coli in Aberdeen, well, I don't know, I never got any of us when I was a kid. And I said to her, they hadn't evolved when you were a kid.
These really nasty E. colis only evolved in the 1980s. So there's always new challenges coming at us. So our strategy at New Zealand Food Safety is we want to reduce and mitigate the impact of these diseases by lifting food safety across the whole system. And with the potential impact of climate change, for instance, we could face new challenges in New Zealand, like Vibrio vulnificus in New Zealand shellfish.
So some Scottish history – this is the well-known international scientific journal called the Sunday Post. It is iconic in Scotland. If you're a fan of Oor Wullie or The Broons this is the journal for you. And this edition is from November 1996 – ‘Killer bug puts 30 in hospital’.
This was the start of the central Scotland outbreak of O157 infection, which, I think, is still the biggest general outbreak of O157 infection in the world. It was that… if you work in public health, that typical Friday night scenario, half past 7, you're sitting down to watch the rugby with a curry, and the phone goes. And you know it's going to be bad news.
And a colleague of mine who's a microbiologist in a town called Carluke, which is in central Scotland, it's near Motherwell. It's really old mining territory – coal mining. And just as an interesting side note, a lot of the most famous football managers ever come from our area, like Sir Matt Busby, Sir Alex Ferguson, and Bill Shankly – all came from our area.
So Ken, the microbiologist from Carluke, phoned me and said, I think we've got something going on here. Because he'd seen 3 cases of O157 in his laboratory in a week. And you wouldn't normally see that number in a month. So he was immediately starting… his antenna were twitching.
The environmental health officers visited a butcher's premises which was thought to be implicated on the Saturday morning. And we received the first outbreak-associated specimens the following week. But we didn't receive the last of them until the third week of May the following year. This was an immense event.
This is another well-known Scottish scientific journal called The Press and Journal. And this was on the Monday – ‘Town in fear as food poisoning toll hits 35’. Now – John Bar and Son, butchers, home bakers. Any alarm bells going off?
And you can't absolutely make it out here, but his awards for Scottish Butcher of the Year for the previous two years were on the door – Scottish Butcher of the Year. This is the effect on the Scottish general public in response to this outbreak. We actually – sort of veering into the social science a bit now – started to see people developing a fear of food. That was a real issue.
So what does one of these events look like? When you work in a reference laboratory, you're used to getting nice, pure cultures of bacteria. We don't normally deal with complete tissue and fluid specimens from people who have died. We don't normally deal with faecal specimens some of which were just frank blood. So suddenly, my staff and I were deluged in these different and challenging specimens, because the forensic pathologists just had no clue, and they wanted microbiological confirmation.
So I would say, at this point, for the women in the audience, that the entire staff of this lab was female, and some of us were pregnant at the time. But we still managed. In the third week of January, we performed 6,000 tests on all of this material, which is equivalent to 10 years work in 8 weeks. Now, you will note, this was over the festive period – Christmas and New Year, which is equally as important, if not more important in the north of Scotland. So that was a major event.
We also had a 5-ton refrigerated container plugged in to the car park, and it contained carcasses, prime cuts, mince, Scotch eggs – you name it, it was in there. We did not isolate O157 from haggis however. Nothing can live in haggis.
At the end of the outbreak, once the outbreak had sort of come to an end, there was a fatal accident inquiry – FAI – which is the equivalent of a coroner's inquest, because more than 21 people had died and more than 600 people were seriously ill. And the final reference lab load was well over 5,000 specimens. And in some cases, we had to try to do serological testing to see whether people had been exposed.
The costs associated with the outbreak – and this is really just initial hospital costs, diagnostic, laboratory investigations, and primary care. There's no sort of societal costs counted in this particular slide.
But you can see that in 1996 it was well over a million pounds. And if you kind of look at it with today's exchange value, it's approaching 2 million. But no inflation has been factored in. This was 1 outbreak. It was a big one, but it had a major impact.
So on the back of BSE and also the O157 experience in Scotland, the Food Standards Agency was set up in the UK. And that's what FSA refers to here. And their purpose really is similar to New Zealand Food Safety, in that they want to perform risk assessment, regulation to reduce and minimize food safety risks and impacts on society. So they've calculated, in the bottom right-hand corner, that the cost of foodborne intestinal infectious disease is a billion pounds. That's per annum, when you sum up the costs to individuals, employers, and government. So the numbers are really quite compelling.
When you look at financial costs, you've got the usual health and rehabilitation, administrative costs, the non-financial costs – this is pain, grief, and suffering. With O157, in particular, you can get really serious consequences – central nervous system consequences, where children, in particular, end up disabled in wheelchairs. They end up with end-stage renal disease – very serious and very expensive to treat.
And in the same way as New Zealand, we're struggling a bit with data. The FSA has to rely on the infectious intestinal disease study of 2000. There was another study completed a couple of years ago, but I don't think the data are available. So the data are quite old. And yet, we have to use them to perform our risk assessments. In the middle, at the bottom, the first IID study only includes details for a few pathogen-specific level costs. So again, we are trying to extrapolate insufficient data.
Thinking about another pathogen, another nasty bug – campylobacter, which most people in New Zealand will be familiar with. And this is the kind of – oh, well, there's just a couple of days of diarrhoea, and then you're OK again. Actually, not. There can be really serious sequelae – that's after-effects of campylobacter infection, including Guillain-Barré syndrome, people can end up paralyzed, or they can die because their respiratory centres fail, long-term irritable bowel syndrome, and reactive arthritis. Who'd have thought they get reactive arthritis from a campylobacter infection. Well, you do, and it's a very debilitating illness.
So all of these serious, not so serious, but still – if you had it, you wouldn't like it. You have men in their 30s who end up hospitalized with diarrhoea and have described it as being the worst few days of their lives. They really thought they were going to die, and then they wished they were going to die. So it's really not pleasant.
The costs associated with something like campylobacter, you've got the usual sorts of treatment costs. Quite often, with gastrointestinal disease, there may not be an antibiotic that is suitable. So the patients are managed conservatively with intravenous fluids. But some can be treated with antibiotics. Then you get the costs to the National Health Service – the NHS – with the different lab analyses, GP's visits, and then personal costs, where you're paying for your own prescriptions or transport to the clinics, et cetera. It all mounts up.
So what we learned in Scotland as well, and this is effectively a raw milk scenario. The West Latvian Lothian outbreak of May 1994 was caused by a failure in pasteurization. And I think it saw the largest milk-borne outbreak worldwide. Seventy cases, 9 cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome, and 1 death. Hemolytic uremic syndrome is a really serious consequence of O157 infection, affecting the kidneys.
Now, 1 of the other impacts of this outbreak was it used up all of the pediatric intensive care unit beds in Edinburgh. So Edinburgh is a major city of Scotland, and all of the pediatric intensive care unit beds were compromised with kids who had been infected in this outbreak. And we isolated the outbreak-causing organism from human faecal specimens, from cattle, from the bulk milk container, from the rubber seals into the bulk milk tanker, dairy machinery. And they were all indistinguishable by PFGE, which is kind of like a forensic fingerprinting technique similar to those used on human criminals.
The dairy owners were prosecuted and the dairy was closed. But they'd lost their clientele anyway. So that outbreak of 70 cases, actually, it was costed out of 30 years, the continuing health impacts. And it costed out – and this is in old money – in 1994 to 95, at nearly 12 million pounds, just about 17 million pounds today. But each case of HUS cost over £62,000 to treat. And that's because of the requirement for ICU and dialysis. So these outbreaks are very costly – costly to the health system, costly to the individuals who are infected.
And the problem really is – and this is entitled The New Zealand Situation, but it applies elsewhere in the world as well – that we've got under-diagnosis of foodborne illness, and we have gaps in our surveillance. So, in general, for foodborne illness, whether it's a norovirus, a rotavirus, salmonella, campylobacter, or a nasty E. coli, for every case that actually gets into national surveillance, there are approximately 222 cases that go undiagnosed in the community.
So we have under-reporting. People might go to the GP. The GP might, say, take a faecal specimen and send it to a laboratory. The faecal specimen may then not have anything isolated from it, or it might do and then it might go into national surveillance. There's a lot of ‘mights’ along the path. This is campylobacter, where for every 1 that goes into national surveillance, there could be between 4 and 18 in the community. So even if campylobacter is a big issue for New Zealand, we're still not capturing all of the data.
So I mentioned ESR colleagues earlier, and ESR colleagues were involved in these calculations of the costs of foodborne illness in New Zealand. And the numbers are pretty big. If you look up here, for campylobacter, that's $74 million, and that's per annum. Every year, campylobacter illness costs this country $74 million. We want to do something about that with New Zealand Food Safety, and we have done, to a certain extent, already.
This is a graph of reducing the incidence of human campylobacter disease. And you can see that there's a big drop here between 2007 and 2008. And self-praise is no praise – I wasn't part of the team in those days – but a big reason why that drop in campylobacter incidence has occurred is because the campylobacter strategy was started, where there was an emphasis put on hygiene at processing and also performance levels for the industry were set. And that is part of the rationale for this decrease taking place.
So it is more than just an upset stomach. Foodborne disease creates significant societal costs, not solely economic, a major global public health issue of long-standing. New risks will continue to emerge, and our new food safety strategy will deliver enhanced food safety across the whole system.
COI stands for cost of illness. And the graph I've just showed you of the downturn of campylobacter, in 2007, the cost of illness was $116.1 million per annum. And that's been reduced to $48.8 million, because of the effect of risk management and regulation that MPI put in place, or NZFSA put in place. So we've been successful in delivering on strategic priorities, reducing incidence of campylobacter disease. However, we can and are determined to do more.
I'll just stop there. Thank you for your attention
[End of transcript]
Audience question: You say we want to do the next big steps in campylobacter.
Fiona Thomson-Carter: Yeah.
Audience question: What are they?
Fiona Thomson-Carter: Well, we've been talking about that. Oh, sorry. I'm hopeless with microphones. We've been talking about it quite a bit in our strategic teams. I'm pointing at Paul, because his team's got a big part to play in food regulation. So we're wondering about being more visible on the ground – being out there in the processing environment, lifting up the bonnet, and having a good look underneath. We are about to receive the results of another major study on campylobacter, the burden of illness in New Zealand with some case attribution data. So within the next few weeks, you should see some reports of messages coming out from that study, and we'll be following those tracks.
Paul Dansted, director of food regulation, New Zealand Food Safety: Maybe I can just jump in here as well. There will have to be a significant scientific aspect to this. There's a whole lot of work that needs to be done here. I think one thing we can reflect on, probably over the last few years, we've focused very much on managing hazards – so the level of bugs throughout the food chain, up until that point of retail. But we estimate that around about 50% of foodborne illness – I don't know if that's still right – happens post retail.
So once the consumer picks up the food, takes it into the home, there are things that happen in the kitchen that we don't always like to speak about. Then there's the consumption of the food. And all these things lead to foodborne illness. We feel that there is more that we can do in that space as well. That is not a regulatory function, but it is something that we in New Zealand Food Safety, we hope, can lead to some improvement there.
Audience question: Hi. I'm interested to know what the ministry's point of view or perhaps MPI and Ministry of Health's point of view is on the perception now that saturated fat is A-OK.
John Roche: I'm not sure. Well, I can't speak for Ministry of Health – put it that way first. But the healthy eating guidelines allow for a consumption of approximately 500 grams of red meat per week. Anything more than that, they recommend that there is an association with negative health outcomes. Most of that has to do with an increased risk of colorectal cancer, rather than the association between the intake of saturated fat and coronary heart disease.
Now, there was a paper, many of you will probably have seen, published last Monday that basically disputed that evidence. And I think that needs further discussion. The epidemiological evidence has always been relatively weak. The increased risk is small at an epidemiological level. So if you factor in an increased risk of colorectal cancer of 1.15 versus an increased risk of an association between abdominal fat and colorectal cancer of over 5, you know where emphasis should be placed in terms of prevention.
I can't speak for Ministry of Health. But that would be our opinion, that meat, dairy, should be part of a healthy and balanced diet, unless there's medical reasons, or religious reasons, or choice reasons for not doing that.
Audience question: Just going back again on the 50% of the campylobacteriosis is post-retail. At this stage, what is your plan of attack to reduce that?
Fiona Thomson-Carter: Sorry, could you repeat the question?
Audience question: It's quite interesting that number is actually 50% of the campylobacteriosis is actually post retail. I was kind of wondering whether, at this stage, do we have any idea of the plan of attack to reduce that. Because, normally, the focus is actually more on poultry processors, rather than the cases post-retail. So, in our minds, wondering what will be the kind of action then.
Fiona Thomson-Carter: Yeah. Well when Paul said that 50%, he said 50% of food poisoning, and not specifically for campylobacter. So it's not just campylobacter. But we had a big push, and we have reduced the incidence of campylobacter by working with the industry. What can we do next? Across the board of foodborne disease, we want to enhance the whole system. So we'll work with industry, we'll be swifter to regulate, and we'll also do… a big priority reality in our strategy is to engage more with consumers, and to find out what's happening, what consumer aspirations are, and how we can work within the general community in order to keep food safer.
I don't want to… you know, I'm a wife, and mother, and all the rest of it, I don't want to point the finger at the housewife or the househusband, but through engaging with consumers, can we help to improve food safety practices in the domestic environment?
John Roche: If I could just potentially add to that and support, 100%, what Fiona has just said. I learned microbiology in university, but I'm not a microbiologist. But one of the starkest memories I have was on reading – I can't even remember what book I was reading – but it was a description of a parent standing outside an ICU with their child suffering from E. coli poisoning and what the doctors were doing inside to that.
And I think one of the problems we've got with any of these, whether it's foodborne illnesses or vaccination and infectious diseases, is the vast majority of communities in the developed world have no knowledge of this. They've never witnessed it. And so until they do, they're lax in terms of process.
So we follow those guidelines that Paul mentioned earlier routinely at home, because of that description of what a simple infection, that could've been avoided by decent hygiene in the kitchen, could do to a family. I think people need to understand that to a greater degree.
Audience question: So John, to your point, we can't just educate people about that. So how do we actually go about engaging people and actually getting that message through?
John Roche: It's a great question, and I'm not sure I have the answer to it. I think it is a mixture. I think there is a bit of education, because you can't just play on people's emotions, obviously. I believe that that starts in school, as dietary habits do, they start in school.
And so educating children about the dangers of the microbial world – that's not a case of having hand sanitizers in every classroom and everyone has to sterilize their hands as they walk in and out. Although, if you look overseas, that's effectively what people do in hospitals now. There is so many hand sanitizer pumping stations. You walk in through the doors of hospitals to try and avoid that contamination with resistant bacteria.
So I think education is a part of it. But it's not just the importance of doing it, and it's more than a happy message. People need to understand the consequences of not adhering to good protocol as well, I think. And that's very different, because although the press have the policy of ‘if it bleeds, it leads’, when we're trying to inform consumers, it tends to be a very careful approach to not offend. I think we need to look carefully at how we do that.
Audience question: Hi. NZFSA, MPI, and the other organizations that have been involved in food safety for a long time have an emphasis on controlling or regulating industry. The consumers are a whole different beast, and the way that they can be communicated with is different. So bringing the two science-based issues and consumer perception and consumer knowledge issues together, is that one of the major challenges of food safety moving forward?
Paul Dansted: Maybe I'll jump in. Short answer is yes. We think we're pretty good. I'm sure John might argue otherwise. But we think we're pretty good at working with the industry and technical agencies to understand how hazards can contaminate the food chain, or how microbes can grow, et cetera – and also, importantly, how to control those. And so that hazard management science, we think we're pretty good at.
We think our regulation is set up in a way that manages that as well. Our regulation is based on the principles of HACCP, as you may well know – so hazard analysis and critical control points throughout the food chain. And then we have a system of verification, where industry runs its own practices and then is verified against that. So that proves or demonstrates how people are operating appropriately.
And that's all well and good, up until that point of retail. And then, of course, all bets are off. You have an entirely different audience. The same principles of managing hazards in the food chain, whether they're bugs, or chemicals, or whatever, are essentially the same. But instead of maybe 40-odd-thousand food businesses that are regulated entities and largely know what they're doing, we're dealing with 5 million consumers who will have varying degrees of expertise, and, let's face it, interest in this matter.
So my feeling is that we've got quite a bit to learn about what that audience needs, and, as John said, what their aspirations are, how we can help them understand what matters in terms of food safety, and hopefully create the kind of behaviours that will allow those consumers to protect themselves. That's going to be a learning curve for us, and it's not an easy exercise.
Audience question: Hi. I'm a pylori verifier, actually at a meat plant, so I completely understand the challenges within the industry. Because once, like you say, it gets to retail and it leaves, we have absolutely no control. Consumers do have to take responsibility, but they can only do so with information. And I think part of the problem is food education has sort of gone to the wayside. We used to have home economics and it teaches people about food safety. But that's, obviously, not as big as it was in the past.
So I think that needs to be one approach, anyway, to educate the public, to make sure that we try and keep them safe in their own homes as well. But that's just my opinion anyway.
Audience question: Hi. An interesting observation probably is that a lot of the community, public and hospitality, pick up their information off YouTube and everything else. They change the menu from what they serve dramatically given public input. And so even though we talk about the industry being regulated, and being verified, and demonstrating it, it sort of goes out the window if something new comes along, and there's a demand for it, and everyone just jumps in to use it.
One of the examples we've run into recently is things like sous vide, where chefs learn sous vide from each other and they have no idea what the risks are. But they've bought the machine, they've got vacuum pouches, and some chef friend of theirs says it's fabulous. So maybe our education still has to go, even though they're part of industry – and I know they're part of the routine – is hospitality and celebrity chef level is still people that send the message and distribute the message, but they're still missing.
Paul Dansted: I'd like to absolutely support that. A couple of observations – harking back to one of the points John made, you remember that twittergram, whatever it was, with the pictures of the two clusters essentially communicating within their tribes and with very little interaction between them. I think we can use that same model and learn from that in how we as a regulator engage with the regulated party, our customers out there.
What we find is that there are a number of businesses who will come in and seek to lead. And that's fantastic. And they'll work with their verifiers, and they'll seek to learn from them, because they have this commitment to try and understand how to manage their food safety risks.
What we also hear, though, is that there's a whole lot out there who, while that may be verified, are quite reluctant to come in and talk to the regulator for whatever reason. We have a hard time engaging with that group. It's not that they are not committed to food safety, but we have a separation between us as a regulator, where we hold a whole lot of information that could be useful for them and this group out there who are kind of interested in it but really don't want to ask.
So one of the challenges we see is, how do we bridge that, and how do we work through others to get that information to the right people in a way that's digestible and useful, and it's something that those people are comfortable picking up and learning from others potentially other than ourselves?
And actually, what I'm really trying to say there is, in some cases, we might want to take ourselves out of the equation and allow others to learn through other mediums and other forums. We can feed into that, but the message doesn't need to come from us.
Audience question: I just want to go back to the educating our consumers and telling our story. I'm a wee bit confused on which direction to take, because the more that we educate our consumer about our process and about how we go about producing our food, the more questions we get. And also, considering your perspective, their bar or their standard changes. And so, we're in a battle that never ends, in a sense. And I'm just wondering if you have perspective on that.
John Roche: That is a great point. And I think it will be a battle that never ends. There's an interesting book written by a professor out of UCLA called The Culture of Fear. And one of his theses there was that your average person in LA had – I can't remember what the statistics were – but twice as many people feared being mugged as air pollution, yet air pollution was 10 times as likely to kill them as they were to be mugged.
And so, a lot of it is saturating the public with the good news stories, and actually explaining to them that, you know, our statistics on food safety – like, Fiona put up there our statistics on campylobacter sicknesses are improving, but here's what needs to happen for them to continue to decline. So we can quantitatively measure it, and it's a lot easier to present it.
In the more value judgment, emotional type of indices, their standard will continue to decline. I have discussions with my father, and I should have said my conflict right from the start. If you go back either side of my family tree, it's farmers all the way back to the Vikings invading Ireland. And so I've got a very strong, deep-seated love for the land. And what my parents' generation used to do, from an environmental point of view, would now be regarded as an abomination.
And they've made so much progress to now, and they can't understand why they need to make even more progress again, seeing as they've come so far. They've fenced off waterways, cows aren't going in, et cetera – things like that. And that is just literally, once we reach a standard, a new standard will be set. It's a little bit easier in the food safety environment, because it is quantitative, and we can actually establish, from a risk profile point of view, what is an acceptable tolerance for risk. But then, again, the consumers can probably challenge us on those, that if our acceptance is 1 in 10,000, they want 1 in 100,000.
They do not understand relative risk. Which is, again, one of the reasons why the media grossly inflate fear. They talk about risk. So the risk of cancer has gone up 15%. They never tell them that the risk of cancer in the first place was 1 in 1,000. So now was 1.15 in 1,000, and people don't understand that.
So I think there is an education, but the most important thing – and you actually stated it, in the first part of your question – is when you embrace the consumer and answer that question, get ready for the next 3, and then 3 for each 1 of those again. It is exponential. It should keep us all the jobs for a long time.
Audience question: Yeah. It's really just a view internationally – are there any countries in the world doing this better or more effective at getting through to the customers, getting the message out through whatever mechanisms of communication? I'm thinking Scandinavian countries or other parts of the world that we can learn from or work with.
John Roche: It's a great question. I don't have an answer. The way people get their information now, it doesn't matter what country they live in. It's a global community. I think I mentioned it that the statistics are that 75% of Americans get news from social media now. That's not all their news, but they get a fair chunk of their news from social media. So I think you've got a global community.
There are certainly interesting differences. There was a very interesting article a few years ago about the problems that we have here in New Zealand with binge drinking, and this psychologist was making the point that we actually don't have a problem with binge drinking relative to others. A lot of countries binge drink, but they don't have the same behaviour problems when they binge drink as we might have in New Zealand – and in other countries, not just New Zealand – their point was making. So there's cultural differences as to what people will accept and what people will take on board from social media.
But I think that playing field is probably levelling off with more modern generations. So I'm not sure, but I'd be very interested. If anyone's got any ideas on that, I'd certainly be very interested in discussing it.
Paul Dansted: Just to comment on that – we're a small country, and we're a small government. And within government, the New Zealand Food Safety is a small department. We are very open to learning from others, and we have good links to a number of regulators in North America, in Europe, et cetera. And I believe the UKFSA does have quite a good programme in this area, and we're certainly in discussions with them. But we are open to all ideas.
[End of transcript]
1. Regaining consumer trust in a digital age
With so much information circulated online and in media, how do we know what’s accurate and what’s not? We’ll explore what scientists and food safety experts do to communicate complicated information so people know how to make good decisions for themselves and their families. We’ll also explore what the science says about some controversial food safety subjects.
2. Impact of food-borne illness for New Zealand – not just an upset stomach
Fiona explores the socioeconomic costs of food-borne illnesses in New Zealand and equivalent countries, and how these illnesses impact different communities. This lecture will include interesting statistics and data from the past couple of decades.
John Roche (chief science advisor, New Zealand Food Safety)
John is the chief science adviser for MPI. He provides strategic science advice and leads the organisation’s Science Forum, which works to promote MPI’s scientific expertise. John also chairs the independent Mycoplasma bovis Strategic Science Advisory Group (SSAG) and the Kauri Dieback SSAG.
Fiona Thomson-Carter (director of food science and risk assessment, Ministry for Primary Industries)
Fiona is director for food science and risk assessment at New Zealand Food Safety. She is a microbiologist and was principal clinical scientist at the Scottish National Reference Laboratory for E. coli O157 and Campylobacter species. She has specific expertise in applying molecular characterization methodologies to enteric pathogens applied in the investigation of major outbreaks of food-borne disease. She has served on a wide range of national and international research steering groups. In New Zealand, Fiona has been responsible for delivery of critical operational science and regulatory risk assessment in a number of areas important in human and environmental health, particularly food safety.
Paul Dansted (director of food regulation, New Zealand Food Safety)
Paul is the director of food regulation in the New Zealand Food Safety business unit of the Ministry for Primary Industries. His directorate is responsible for developing food production, processing, testing, and import and export standards. The directorate spends most of its time on working with the food industry to meet these standards and to produce safe and suitable food. Paul started his professional life as a policy analyst, and has worked in policy, operations, science, and regulatory roles. He has contributed to and led development of international food standards.