Susan Wood interviews Nathan Guy
SUSAN A very good morning to you.
NATHAN GUY – Primary Industries’ Minister
Morning, Susan. How are you?
SUSAN I’m very good, thank you. Now, our economy, our wealth depends on our reputation as a very safe food exporter. That relies on the best science in the world – proof this week we don’t have that science?
NATHAN Well, you are right. Our reputation does hinge on the fact that we have a reputation as a safe producer of food. We export to about 200 countries all around the world. We—
SUSAN But we don’t have the science to back it up when AgResearch gets it so very wrong.
NATHAN Well, at the end of the day, you and I don’t know all of the details about what AgResearch were asked to do.
SUSAN But what we do know is that they found something that wasn’t there.
NATHAN If we just step back through it for a moment, if we can. What we do know is that Fonterra had some concerns, then they went to AgResearch. And as a result of those concerns from AgResearch, and publicly they’re saying they stand by their findings, they then came to MPI and said they’re going to do product— Fonterra said they’re going to do a product recall. As a result of that, MPI responded. They had to respond in the appropriate way because—
SUSAN But it’s off the back of poor science, isn’t it? The science was wrong. You can’t disagree with that. AgResearch got it wrong; there was no botulism.
NATHAN Well, at the end of the day, that’ll be one of the aspects of the inquiry.
SUSAN No, no, no, don’t give me that. You cannot deny the science was wrong, because there is no botulism.
NATHAN Well, what I’d like to say is that you and I don’t know the details of what AgResearch were asked to do.
SUSAN No, but what we do know is that we were told there was potential botulism within this powder that could kill people. That is not the case, is it?
NATHAN And MPI responded accordingly and so did Fonterra.
SUSAN Yes, but let’s just clarify – the science was wrong, wasn’t it
NATHAN Well, at the end of the day, we got 195 samples—
SUSAN No, no, no, no. The science was right or wrong in the first place from AgResearch?
NATHAN Well, AgResearch are saying that they stand by their findings. Now, you’ve got—
SUSAN So is there still botulism, then? Is there still the potential for that?
NATHAN No, because 195 samples were tested at Massey University, at the MPI laboratories here in New Zealand. They went to world-leading laboratories in the United States – two of them. They came back on Wednesday and confirmed that we didn’t Clostridia botulinum—
SUSAN So clearly AgResearch got it wrong – we don’t have the botulism, thank goodness for that. But why is it, though, we are having to send our samples to world-leading labs in the United States? Why are those labs not world-leading in New Zealand when we want to be, you know, the food bowl of the South Pacific?
NATHAN That’s right. You’re exactly right, and they are some of the questions that we’re going to work through in the inquiry. The appropriate thing happened here, though, Susan.
SUSAN But you must be screaming for answers already, because the whole basis of this is poor science. The whole basis of all this damage to our reputation is poor science, isn’t it?
NATHAN Well, let’s think about this for a moment.
SUSAN Is it or not? What was the basis of this? Poor science or not?
NATHAN Can I just answer by saying we test over five million samples a year – that’s MPI, AsureQuality and Fonterra. We do millions and millions of samples a year. From time to time, there’s an issue with the product, and New Zealand responds accordingly. And that’s why when you think about—
SUSAN But the point is of those five million tests, how many do you think you’re getting wrong, because that is the problem if our science is not reliable, isn’t it?
NATHAN Well, at the end of the day, we’re a food-producing country. We’ve been exporting for 120 years, Susan, to around 200 countries all around the world, and we do that really really well. We’re a safe producer of food.
SUSAN Oh, I don’t know that we’ve done it so well this year. I mean, we have our trading partners, for example, the Chinese, picking up nitrates in milk powder. We’ve had the DCD. This year there have been a lot of scares with our food and its safety.
NATHAN Well, on some of those cases that you’ve just talked about, that’s a food assurance issue, not particularly to do with a food safety issue. We’ve got to clarify that.
SUSAN Then why are our partners picking up things in our food that we’re not picking up, that our science isn’t picking up?
NATHAN Well, at the end of the day, the world is demanding more of us. They are demanding more in terms of scientific tests, and we’re going to respond accordingly.
SUSAN So we’re not keeping up with that, essentially? So we are not geared to keep up with those scientific tests? Is that the issue?
NATHAN Well, food safety’s hugely important for New Zealanders, and it is for our international trading partners.
SUSAN And is that the issue – that we have slipped behind with our science, with our food safety?
NATHAN No, I wouldn’t say we’ve slipped behind. What I would say is that the markets are demanding more of us. That’s why we’ve got a ministerial inquiry that’s going to look at all of our food safety systems, our tracing, our testing, all of those things. It’s going to be really important—
SUSAN You worried about it? You worried about the science
NATHAN It’s going to be really important we get these questions—
SUSAN Are you worried? Are you concerned about the science?
NATHAN I’m not—
SUSAN Mr Guy, are you concerned about the science?
NATHAN No, because we are a food-producing country—
SUSAN How can you say that?
NATHAN Well, what—
SUSAN How can you say this when there’s bad science there?
NATHAN What I was going to say is we’ve got a proud history. There will be some learnings as a result of these issues that have come to bear in the last month or so. And we’ll work through that in a very considered way and get to the bottom of it. And MPI and all of the other regulators are going to be reviewed as part of this process, and that’s going to be really important.
SUSAN We know with MPI that certainly when we had the meat on the wharves in China, and you were not impressed about that at all at the time. It was understaffing and under-resourcing, and that came from the MPI. They said that was the problem. Are they still? Is that the problem with the botulism?
NATHAN Well, what happened with the China meat situation was a meat-certification issue, and that was an issue that shouldn’t have happened with MPI and it did happen, and I publicly said I was really disappointed.
SUSAN And the MPI blamed understaffing and under-resourcing.
SUSAN Is there a problem within the Ministry? I mean, you’ve cut a lot of cost out of this ministry by joining the three together and making a superministry. Is there an issue there with under-resourcing?
NATHAN Well, the budget this year is up by 35 million for MPI. At the end of the day, the merger has helped the MPI to respond in this particular situation, because you’ve got a lot more of the technical resources there available, whether it’s scientists, whether it’s compliance officers, whether it’s policy guys. They’ve all worked really well together, in my opinion, to come up with what is a very important response.
SUSAN Now, the Chinese are calling for officials to go to China. We know that there are certainly dairy people going up there at the moment. It certainly is part of the Chinese culture. Government officials are a big deal and will make a difference. Are you considering that? I know the Prime Minister’s not going to go till after the inquiries, but will someone else go before?
NATHAN Yes, we are. We’re working on a market recovery plan, and I’ve requested that along with other ministers, Minister Joyce, Groser and McCully, so we’re bringing together a collective response to look at where do we need to put officials into markets first, when do ministers need to go? We’ve just had Minister McCully in Sri Lanka on what was a very important and pretty successful visit.
SUSAN China on the agenda pretty soon?
NATHAN China’s on the agenda. It’s likely—
NATHAN It’s likely that the Acting Director General will be going to China later this week. It’s very important now that we’ve got the test results out there – we’ve got a 40-page tracing report out there –that all of those are public, that the Acting DG goes up and sits down with AQSIQ, takes them through it, reassures them all so that we can unlock some of the barriers that we’ve got in trade. But what I want to say also, Susan, is that most of our product is still flowing all around the world.
SUSAN Thank you for your time this morning.
NATHAN Thank you.