Food Protection Strategies

As one of the most progressive agricultural nations and due to its heavy reliance on food exports, maintaining a high quality and positive brand image of their exports of dairy, meat, wine, fruit and honey is of keen interest to both the New Zealand government and food industry. It is therefore not surprising that the Ministry for Primary industries (MPI) convened a food protection forum with invited experts from around the globe to explore the latest developments in food safety, food safety culture, food defence, food fraud and food chain transparency.

The New Zealand Food Protection Forum explored the omnipresent risk of food fraud, including economically motivated adulteration and related counter-criminal strategies, which were discussed by Dr John Spink from Michigan State University in the U.S. Dr John Larkin, Research Director of the Food Protection and Defense Institute, a Department of Homeland Security Center at the University of Minnesota in the U.S., briefed the audience on the latest developments in tools for counter-terrorist strategies commonly labelled under “food defence”.

Mr Frank Yiannas, Vice President for Food Safety at Walmart, spoke of the importance of embedding a food safety culture into the New Zealand agrifoods sector and through its export supply chains. Dr Alan Reilly spoke about his role as the Irish food safety regulator and CEO of the agency that discovered and exposed the horsemeat scandal. Mr Jim Flannery, Senior Executive Vice President, Operations and Industry Affairs, of U.S.-based Grocery Manufacturing Association (GMA) and former Procter & Gamble (P&G) executive, discussed and explained how the U.S. industry has aligned behind a “SmartLabel” initiative to enhance food chain transparency and deliver a consistent digital experience to consumers who want to access additional information about the product and producer.

What is food protection?

Food protection is an overarching concept that includes the four pillars of the food system: food quality, food safety, food fraud and food defence. Successful implementations of programmes across this continuum will also enhance food security – the safe, continuous supply of nutritious and affordable food to meet individual lifestyles.

Another benefit of protecting the food supply chain is that food chain transparency is enhanced through the sharing of product-related information amongst supply chain stakeholders without loss, noise, delay or distortion. An integrated food protection strategy will facilitate consumer trust and social harmony by enhancing transparency and reducing system vulnerabilities from attack.

The global food supply chain is very complex and consumers have become more aware, concerned and involved with many aspects of “producer-to-plate” or “farm-to-fork”, including questioning credence labels such as “natural” or “fair trade”. Consumer sensitivity research in the U.S. indicates that trust is enhanced when a deeper level of transparency by food brand owners about their sustainability practices, supplier ethical standards (anti-slavery, workplace conditions), sourcing/fair trade, ingredients, allergens and food protection strategies is made available.

The importance of food safety culture

A standard food safety programme or food safety management system isn’t enough. There is a shift from trying to predict the future of food safety, to shaping it by understanding and learning from the past and focusing more on human behaviour aspects of food safety. Furthermore, the food system continues to become more and more complex with increasingly unique risks. Yiannas reminded participants that a food safety culture must be nurtured by senior management and must become an integral part of a food safety management system. He noted that a food safety culture must be evident at every step in the food journey.

Countering the threat of food related terrorism – food defence

Food defence broadly addresses the food system’s resilience to intentional attacks intended to cause harm. Harm may be economic, focused on public health, or terror-related. Specifically, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), within the Intentional Adulteration (IA) section of the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), defines food defence as protection against “catastrophic events”, specifically terrorism. By FSMA-IA definitions, this does not include “disgruntled employees” or “malicious tampering”. Ironically, enforcement agencies in New Zealand announced on Day Two of the forum that a man had been arrested for threatening to contaminate infant formula with the pesticide 1080. On 23 March 2016, he was sentenced to 8.5 years in jail on two counts of attempted blackmail. This case is complex and there seems to be multiple motives that would categorise it as both food defence and food fraud. Dr Larkin shared information on the latest tools and technologies for companies and governments to mitigate the risks involved in a nation’s food defence.

Conclusions

MPI provided an opportunity to gather a wide range of international experts to share insights that apply specifically to food protection in New Zealand. New Zealand has an opportunity – and now the awareness – to take major steps in coordinating a world-leading national food protection strategy. Key takeaways included:

Collaboration (including public-private partnerships) and a culture change, which are the most efficient and effective ways to broadly protect the food supply and source economies, as well as achieve and sustain consumer confidence.

Transparency is a vital tool to facilitate consumer trust. Moreover, it can enhance trading relationships, reduce conflict among stakeholders and may help to fast track goods through borders.

Companies should map their supply chains from end-to-end as a basis for understanding key processes and providing a baseline for vulnerability assessment

The first step is to create a task force or working group to develop the policy, the vision for a (food protection) strategy and an implementation plan. The strategy should consider current and possible resources that can be mobilised to focus on the issue. Importantly, the food protection strategy does not need to be complex or resource-intensive if there is a focus on optimising current activities.

The above is an extract from an original report published in September 2016. The link to the original paper includes links to YouTube videos of the conference sessions, including panel discussions chaired by John Keogh. 

John Keogh is the President and Principal Advisor at Shantalla.