Protecting our $750 million meat markets
AgResearch plays an important role in protecting our export markets.
The United States is the single largest market for our exported beef, but is highly sensitive to any risk of adulteration by bacteria that cause foodborne illness in consumers.
Last year more than 40% of New Zealand's export beef was exported to the United States making it New Zealand's single largest export market. That equates to around 150,000 tonnes with an average value of over $5,000 a tonne.
New Zealand's total beef exports returned a total of $2 billion last year with the United States accounting for some $750 million of that export revenue.
Under contract to the Ministry of Primary Industries and the Meat Industry Association, supplemented with core funding where appropriate, AgResearch helps to manage some of the risks associated with this important market through providing expert scientific advice and methods validation services.
One of these risks is in the area of food safety – an area of considerable importance to the United States Food Safety Inspection Service.
In September last year the United States tightened its requirements on pathogen controls for meat sold in the United States, including imported meat. New testing requirements had to be in place in New Zealand by June this year.
With only six months to implement new protocols, members of AgResearch’s Food Assurance team led by Senior Scientist John Mills, along with Environmental Science Research and AsureQuality, assisted the Ministry for Primary Industries to work with meat processors and testing laboratories to develop an appropriate testing regime to meet the new requirements.
“We had to work quickly,” says Mr Mills. “With nearly 30 meat export plants and six independent testing laboratories we had develop a coordinated response to the new regulations.”
The protocols were required to test for a range of different serotypes of pathogenic E. coli that can cause anything from mild to life-threatening illness if eaten.
Fortuitously, says Mr Mills, at the time he was working with the Ministry for Primary Industries and industry to validate other test requirements that used the Biocontrol GDS (Genetic Detection System) platform.
“While we had a number of options we could choose from to implement the new testing regime for the new requirements, the GDS met almost all of our criteria for the new requirements including the ability to get it in place well before the June deadline.”
The United States ranks New Zealand's testing programme as one which has 'equivalence' with their own.
“Part of our equivalence agreement with the United States is our 'Test and Hold' regime whereby we test the meat and hold it in storage until it has been cleared as meeting export requirements,” says Mr Mills.
It is vitally important, he says, to be sure our testing regime works so we retain our arrangements with the United States.
Mr Mills says that given the speed with which the new regime was evaluated and implemented it has been successful.
“We will continue to monitor and refine our procedures and protocols to make sure they are as robust as we need them to be to protect our industry and its vitally important market access.”
Had the new testing regimes implemented not met United States equivalent assay validation requirements, this could have resulted in the cessation of export of manufacturing grade beef and veal cuts to the United States or a change to the United States border testing requirements for New Zealand beef and veal that could have put our exports at risk.
Cautiously assuming a worst case scenario of a broad two month restriction on United States market access after interim negative tests on an individual consignment under a more stringent regime, a conceivable cost of $40 million in lost export earnings with redirection of product to other lower value markets at short notice could occur. This estimate is probably conservative in that the market food safety reputation for New Zealand beef exports in general could also have been impacted over this period.
Total investment from 2007-2012 was estimated at $860,000 from Ministry for Primary Industries’ Biosecurity and New Zealand meat industry funds.