Imports and Exports: Ensuring Food Safety Down Under
By An interview with Cawthron and Oritain on best practices in New Zealand
With global food safety more important than ever before, Food Safety Magazine is taking a closer look at how various regions of the world are addressing current issues facing the food industry today.
The conversation that follows highlights responses from New Zealand vendors Cawthron, which provides high quality research, advice and analytical services to support the development of New Zealand’s seafood industry and sustainable management of the coastal and freshwater environment, and Oritain, a provider of commercial food origin systems, to questions surrounding industry best practices for safe seafood production in their isolated island environment.
FSM: What practices are you implementing to comply with increased demands on imported food safety?
Cawthron: Most of our analytical services are focused on supporting New Zealand manufacturers with exporting food products, so we ensure our test methodology and international accreditations are constantly reviewed. This assists with international market access for a wide variety of products that are being exported to markets throughout the world.
For imported products we work closely with regulatory bodies within New Zealand like the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) and the Ministry of Fisheries to ensure that our testing methodology and accreditations meet the requirements for the products that we are testing.
FSM: What are your greatest food safety-related challenges?
Cawthron: A large number of New Zealand food companies are focused on exporting, as our local market (a population of only 4 million people) is often not large enough for sustainable growth. The greatest challenge for these companies is meeting the many and varied overseas market access requirements (OMARS) that are applied by both the countries and specific distributors within those countries. For example, many of the large supermarket chains in the UK have specific requirements in addition to the OMARS. As an independent analytical service provider, we work with a wide range of food producers to assist with this process. This is a dynamic process as new food safety issues come to light around certain food types or in certain export markets. Food safety-related issues are managed by MAF and are dependent on the type of product and the specific requirements for each market.
Oritain: As others have, we have also recognized that there is a complexity to food safety that requires a multipronged approach. Most recently we have partnered with U.S.-based companies to provide a “holistic” approach to food safety. Briefly, we recognize that there are three main questions that drive food safety: 1) Is it contaminated; 2) Is it authentic and 3) Where is it from? The partnerships that we have developed within the U.S. will allow us to answer these three questions within a management framework that is consistent with crisis preparedness. The concept is to be trialed later this year.
FSM: What controls do you implement when importing raw ingredients or materials for processing?
Cawthron: This often depends on who the final customer is and what regulatory requirements the customer, or the country where the product is going to be consumed, has around that particular product. The regulations can vary greatly depending on the type of product it is and how it will be consumed by the final customer, for example, ready-to-eat products or products that require cooking prior to eating.
Oritain: The increasing complexity of the global food supply chain, including procurement of multiple ingredients from multiple sources means that there are multiple threats to an honest producers’ ability to produce good food—even prior to it entering the supply chain.
The way with which we are addressing food supply is by taking a systems approach—understanding the supply chain and providing a response that addresses the weaknesses.
But, first some background. Natural products absorb properties of the local environment where they were grown, raised or, in some cases, produced. These environments provide a natural signal (a lot like a fingerprint) that can match a product back to its origin. The key thing, a lot like with fingerprints, you need to have the background data to link a product to its origin. As an analogy, a fingerprint gives you information only when it is linked to another fingerprint (on a database or at the scene of a crime).
Oritain works with producers and food processors to identify the reference data for their products or ingredients. In this way, our customers can verify if the raw ingredient that they are using is “true to origin” or if the product being sold under their brand or label is actually the product that they produced.
In many cases we work “behind the scenes” providing verification of the integrity of a supply chain—for example, is something true to the origin claim that a merchant is making? If we hold the baseline data of the true origin, we can compare a product anywhere in the supply chain against that data, regardless of how it got to that point in the supply chain and regardless of any barcode, labeling or traceability system.
Where our system differs from traceability systems is that we are mapping the unique characteristic of the product—what is inside the product. We do not rely on labeling or packaging and the weaknesses that can be associated with traceability systems alone. For example, at times New Zealand exports apples to over 200 countries relying on a traceability system to protect the integrity of those products would require a system that met the culture, language, technology, motivation, etc. needs of all importing countries. Another concern relates to the fact that anything added to a product can be removed, copied or tampered with.
We also work with some producers who want a point of difference; specifically, they want to be able to point to the integrity of their product’s origin and the fact that it has been independently verified by us. One of our clients, Antonio Pasquale, produces premium wines in the Waitaki Valley of New Zealand. Antonio reports a value add of 20% for his wines sold in Australia because he can verify that the wine is made with grapes produced on his vineyards.
FSM: Has the isolated environment of New Zealand been challenging with regard to food safety? Why or why not?
Cawthron: As a small country, New Zealand is more able to regulate its exporters and to collect relevant data from industry on food safety-related issues.
New Zealand also has very strict border controls that minimize the potential of diseases or unwanted plant and animal varieties that enter New Zealand. This can assist with market access to certain countries and reduce the amount of export testing required.
Oritain: Starting a company such as ours in New Zealand has been relatively easy. Aided by the natural borders of the Pacific and the fact that New Zealand exports 80% of what it produces means that there is a need to protect products and that need drives the development of scientific methods for authentication of origin. Oritain has also been fortunate to be supported by the New Zealand government through outreach New Zealand Trade and Enterprise offices around the world—making it easier to speak to potential clients and to understand regulatory and legislative requirements.
Our methods have been applied to a number of different products including: honey, wool, wine, meat, dairy products, fruit, vegetables and seed. The potential applications don’t stop there. The science is derived from the forensic science community, and the approach taken by Oritain means that care is taken to secure authentic samples and manage chain-of-custody to ensure that, if required, evidence would be admissible in courts.
FSM: What “best practice” would you like to share with your sector of the food industry?
Cawthron: Make sure you have resources set aside for keeping up to date with OMARS. Establishing and maintain relationships with your customers so you can deliver the information they need to ensure the products can be exported into those markets. Work with external service providers who deliver high quality service and results and who have the necessary internationally recognized accreditation that will be recognized and accepted overseas. It helps if the provider has an international profile.
FSM: Do you have a story where some issue/difficulties were successfully alleviated (e.g., contamination that was identified and solved, potential recall event averted, etc.)?
Cawthron: Our icon story in terms of food safety is the threat that algae-related biotoxins posed to the shellfish industry in the late 1990s. Cawthron had a fundamental role in developing world leading instrumental techniques for the detection and quantification of a range of biotoxins that were threatening New Zealand Greenshell™ mussel exports (see story below).
Cawthron’s Shellfish Toxin Testing Capability and Its Contribution to Food Safety
Cawthron provides testing services, including monitoring shellfish for marine biotoxins. In 2001, Cawthron changed from using mouse bioassay to liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) for testing lipophilic shellfish toxins. This change was driven by a desire for a more efficient biotoxin monitoring scheme that delivered economic benefits for the shellfish industry by providing more cost effective and reliable testing methodology. We still use the same system today and that is strong testimony to the economic efficiency and reliability that LC-MS technology has introduced into our biotoxin-monitoring program.
New Zealand produces $1.43 billion in seafood products annually and exports 90 percent of that production. The aquaculture industry has a goal of achieving $1 billion in sales by 2025; this can only be achieved if our exports meet the highest international food safety standards. Until recently, shellfish product safety testing used mice (a 1950s technology); however, Cawthron has developed innovative new tests which help ensure our seafood industry maintains continuous access to high value markets in North America, Japan and the European Union.