Monday, November 17, 2014

Is Our Food Safety System as Strong as We Think. Private Sector vs Public Sector

Is our food safety system as robust as we think it is? And are we better served by the public or private sector?

Last week I blogged about my issues getting the mobile cowshed evaluated by inspectors.

The way the food safety system works, is the government agency via The Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) set the food standards. When a company sets up a food business, the verification services are provided by the private sector.

In New Zealand we have AsureQuality, which is a state owned enterprise, but it operates as a for profit business. There seems to be only two other providers, Eurofins & SGS in NZ who can offer dairy evaluation services.

The problem I have struck is there are not enough staff within these three businesses to evaluate and verify my business.

Lack of food safety specialists

I've spoken to quite a few people in MPI, AsureQuality & Eurofins over the last few months. They all say that the demand for their services have boomed in the last 2 years. 

The Fonterra botulism issue has absorbed a lot of manpower, but there is also a large number of new dairy businesses starting or expanding. 

There are a number of large dairy processors expanding, like Fonterra's Edendale & Darfield plants. But there is also a number of new factories (many backed by Chinese money) popping up across the country.

There is also a boom in the numbers of small producers like myself setting up.

As an aside; I found it interesting that there are only 3 people in New Zealand who can assess dairy heat treatment facilities. The same person who assesses massive milk powder plants is also the guy who assesses my 300 litre/day pasteuriser.

All these things combined have meant that the demand for their services has increased dramatically.

Why not just employ more people?

They are trying to, the problem is these roles are quite specialised, they can't just put an ad in the paper.

I've noticed almost all of the people I have dealt with, from food safety consultants, evaluators and assessors all seem to be over 50 years old. These people have been in the industry for over 30 years. Many are on the verge of retirement.

Where are the young people?

It seems they don't stick around. 

One person commented 
"we used to employ graduates, but they all seemed to leave after 1-1.5 years. The problem is it takes us 2 years to train a graduate to the point where they can operate unsupervised."
I haven't received my bill yet for my pasteuriser inspection, but I believe the hourly rate that I pay for the time the inspector is travelling is $90/hour. While they are inspecting and writing the report, the hourly rate is over $130.

Upon hearing the rates they charge, I thought there must be some serious money to be made in dairy verification.

Yes there is, but at the same time no there isn't.

It appears that for some companies, dairy verification services are just too hard to provide. I've come across at least one company that no longer does dairy evaluation because their evaluator left and its just too hard to replace them.

Private sector vs public sector

This has got me thinking, is New Zealand's food safety system best served by the private sector?

My reason for asking this is. 

A private company needs to make a profit. If a company employs a verifier and spends considerable resources training them, they want to be sure there's enough work for them so the new employee can pay for themselves. 

It appears to me that these companies take a "wait and see" approach before committing to employing more staff. This make perfect sense to any business person.

Meanwhile, the countries food businesses are being held up by a bottleneck in the form of insufficient number of inspectors & other services.

What about the public sector? 

Well, MPI is able to conduct evaluations, but
 "we don't want to be seen to be competing with the private sector". 
Before MPI will step in they need to be sure that none of the private sector providers are able to provide the services.

In my case, MPI have said they will step in & evaluate my RMP because the private sector businesses are unable to do it.

I wonder how larger export businesses are faring? I'm sure I'm not the only one battling these sorts of delays?

Efficiency vs Resilience

This has got me thinking. We always hear about companies and departments focusing on efficiency. But maybe it's in the best interests of the country to have some inefficient departments. 

The more efficient you become the less resilient you are. An efficient department is one where the minimum number of people are meeting the required standards. But as soon as something unexpected happens like botulism. You find yourself stretched and it takes time to catch up.

It appears to me that the combination of Fonterra's botulism scare and the ever increasing demands of our export partners is stretching our food safety system. I have no hard facts to prove this, but my little experience with the food safety system makes me wonder if our system is really as strong as we think it is.

Maybe its best to have MPI overstaffed a bit, with the experienced staff investing in training the next generation of food safety professionals. Even if they can't justify bringing these new staff on at the moment.

The payback may be in 10 years time.