In 2001, while I was living in the USA, I read the book Fast Food Nation, shortly after it was released.
I stopped eating meat.
The USA’s food system was so broken that the quality of the meat being consumed was not just poor, but dangerous to consumers. Abattoir lines were so fast that workers, who were generally very poorly paid, overworked and temporary, were operating in conditions that made it essentially impossible to maintain hygiene standards. Chickens were raised in barns where disease ran rampant, over-use of antibiotics increased human resistance to these drugs by bacteria, while perverse economic incentives driven by anti-Cuba sentiment prioritised fat-producing high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) over sugar.
Overall the bacteria levels in meat were often critically high, essentially every piece of chicken had salmonella, and there was no semblance of control by the regulators. Indeed the producers had fought and won a long battle against the FDA for self-inspection and increasingly lower FDA funding, so that there were too few inspectors and their powers were crippled.
It was the end game from the classic USA prioritisation of quantity and short term profits at the expense of quality. Products from giant food companies were reformulated time and time again, and became less and less like real food and more and more like chemicals.
Meanwhile the US has led a global explosion of a switch to ‘irresistible’ foods that are very high in salt, sugar (or HFCS) and fat, foods that our bodies are triggered to just keep eating, and yet which create all sorts of health and well-being issues.
Since then we’ve seen the rise of markets like Whole Foods, which will not sell chemicals-as-food, and end to end control of branded meat. The situation is a lot better, but only if you can afford it, and in the USA most cannot.
So a contributing factor for my choice to return to New Zealand in 2003 was that our strong food system meant that the quality of our food was second to none. It was a joy to be able to eat meat, knowing that from the farm to my plate it was protected by an unimpeachable food system.
But time moves on, and somehow something has changed. This Metro expose has the details, which I won’t repeat here, but it appears to be excellent journalism.
It is arguable that our food inspection system, which traditionally separated the inspectors from the producers, has become corrupted. Not in the money-under the table sense, but in the sense that some inspectors are no longer independent. This letter to the Minister by Stephen Judd from late 2010 correctly identifies the hazards of allowing self-regulation in an industry like this. Despite the best intentions, the short term profit incentives will always be to increase production at the expense of safe food, and the system will be steadily undermined.
The Metro expose comes after the publicity from the well known Fonterra food system issues, and forces us all to consider whether or not our food system in New Zealand is even in control. Urgent action is required.
But just being in control of our food system is not good enough for New Zealand. Our economy and society is completely dependant on our food exports, and to maintain our reputation and to increase our export margins our food system needs to be inarguably the best in the world. We should be demanding – and tracking – the highest quality of standards from the farm to the plate. That means everything from treatment of animals (including diet), environmental sustainability on farms, animal transport and processing, food handling and so on and on.
I would like to see a future where consumers, whether local or international, have visibility of the entire food system, from farm to their plate. We should be delivering the evidence that shows why the world should completely trust our food system over all others, showing that our food is the highest quality.
New Zealand’s food safety may be perceived by some as an environmental, safety or social issue, but if this is unaddressed it will become the most critical economic issue of our time. As New Zealanders interested in our economic security we should collectively have zero tolerance for accepting anything that would bring our food system into disrepute.
This is not a game where self-regulation is acceptable, but that’s just one symptom to address. The underlying cause is that we need to lift our standards, starting at the political level, to ensure that we remain the best in the world at what we do.