We can be fairly positive in New Zealand that what’s printed on the packet is the same as what’s inside the packet – and whatever that is won’t kill us or make us sick. But news headlines today often feature food scares (some deliberate, some unintentional) even in well-regulated nations.
One study, for example, found a third of seafood on US shelves was mislabelled, and the country suffers E. coli outbreaks every year in everything from Taco Bell to organic spinach.
Then there was the 2013 European horse meat scandal, and a raft of Chinese and Indian scandals, including the well-publicised 2008 melamine-poisoned infant formula horror story, which killed six babies and hospitalised 54,000, and the toxic bean-sprouts scare, where the vegetables were treated with sodium nitrite, urea, antibiotics and plant hormones to make them grow faster and look shinier in the market stalls.
Otago-based food provenance certifier, Oritain, reckons “food fraud” has an impact on at least 10% of global food production, although there’s no real way to measure it because most of it goes unreported.
“Food fraud is essentially anything done to a product for economic gain, whether that’s dilution or full substitution or a brand rip-off,” says Oritain sales and marketing manager Todd Gordon. “Honey is a shocker – a lot of honey [on the global market] contains no honey at all. It’s not necessarily harmful but it rips people off; then there’s labelling caged eggs as free range and things like that.”
It’s not surprising then that food safety is top of mind for global food consumers. A Mintel study six months after the horse meat problems found half of British shoppers didn’t trust the food industry to provide safe food, and only 36% thought food manufacturers knew where their ingredients came from.
And research by Lincoln University trade and environment professor Caroline Saunders suggests food safety often tops the list of what foreign consumers look for when they buy their food.
The US Grain Council’s 2040 report suggests foods with demonstrable safety attributes will be able to command premium prices – at least in the future.
“In 2040, verifiable information about a food product will deliver an important part of the product’s value.
“East Asian markets will belong to suppliers whose customers trust them because they can demonstrate the safety, quality, and identity of their food. Trustworthy products will command a substantial food differential.”
The problem for New Zealand is that mostly foreign consumers don’t know that the food they are eating comes from here – so that premium value is lost.
Most of NZ’s beef and dairy exports are exported as unbranded commodity ingredients, and significant proportions of lamb and venison exports end up in hotels, restaurants and institutions with nothing to identify them as coming from New Zealand, Saunders says.
KPMG’s Ian Proudfoot says New Zealand should be far more proactive in terms of protecting its reputation as a safe food producer. Auckland-based Proudfoot, who heads KPMG’s global agribusiness team, says when it comes to food safety, New Zealand “cannot afford an average performance”.
“Our economic prosperity relies on the trust we earn from being ahead of our competitors,” he wrote in the NZ Agribusiness Agenda 2015.
A big challenge is communicating our safety bona fides to the end consumer. Part of Saunders’ research is in finding ways to empower New Zealand suppliers to be able to communicate that value directly.
One organisation attempting to address this is GS1, the global barcode standards agency. The New Zealand arm is participating in paddock-to-plate traceability trials, and chief executive Dr Peter Stevens says a high level of traceability is important to build consumer trust around provenance and to make product recalls easier all along the supply chain.
The trials are still ongoing – both into the technology and the viability of the idea – but it’s no longer unimaginable that a cut of meat in Germany could be traced right back to the farm and even the animal it came from, Stevens says.
New Zealand cannot afford an average performance when it comes to food safety. Our economic prosperity relies on the trust we earn from being ahead of our competitors - Ian Proudfoot
“It’s hard to argue New Zealand doesn’t have an interest in insuring there’s good traceability through to the finished product. We should be at the forefront of that.”
Oritain, on the other hand, is building its business based on assuring the authenticity of other people’s products.
It does that by profiling genuine samples of a company’s product based on the unique soil and mineral profiles of the region it is grown or raised in, and keeps that on file to compare to suspected counterfeits should the need arise.
It’s an extra layer of reputational protection for brands and a guarantee to foreign consumers as to the veracity of the product they purchase.
Oritain already works with Kiwi exporters like Silver Fern Farms (beef, lamb and venison), milk processors Synlait and Westland, and Maori food producer Kono, and it is in negotiations with offshore clients.
Silver Fern Farms
Silver Fern Farms is also using a combination of technology and packaging to communicate a commitment to high safety standards. A Chinese-language website tells consumers about the qualities of the product and the benefits of grass-fed animals – a quality that is neither as self-explanatory nor as obvious abroad as it is in New Zealand.
Meanwhile, its packaging – double-sealed with a printed over-sleeve – is designed to convey safety.
Marketing general manager Sharon Angus says Silver Fern Farms’ internal research has also revealed food safety means different things in different countries.
“It’s important to understand what it means to the consumer… In China it basically means contaminant or fraud-free, which is why Oritain is important,” she says. “In the Middle East it is about integrity of the value chain at every point and [that] it has been transported at appropriate temperatures. They are moving from what was traditionally a frozen market to seeing chilled as more premium as long as they can trust the value chain.”
Clever food technology
Producing safe food is one way to add value to our exports; exporting our expertise around safe food chains, and food authentication is another.
“Given we are going to grow the value of the industry, part of that has got to be exporting our IP,” says KPMG New Zealand global head of agribusiness Ian Proudfoot. “We need to recognise that food safety and integrity, the ability to authenticate food is strategically important, and lead the world in that sort of technology innovation.”
As well as Oritain, which fingerprints food to reassure consumers and protect brands against food fraud, there are clever Kiwi apps like FoodEye, Social Code’s DrinkSmart, GoalPost and Kaitown, which are already helping New Zealanders make healthy food choices, manage drinking and quit smoking – there’s nothing to say we couldn’t take this tech to the world.
Then there’s the opportunity to export Kiwi food safety expertise, says São Paulo-based NZTE trade commissioner Ralph Hays.
New Zealand is already held in high regard in Brazil and there are opportunities to show producers the ropes as the country develops its own export sector.
“The quality requirements of international products continue to increase and New Zealand is seen to be at the forefront of that on the back of 10 years of experience,” Hays says. “Brazil has tended to be quite inward looking but with the economic situation and looking to increase export capabilities, they see New Zealand as someone who can provide advice on technology and expertise.”