How politicians are poisoning our food

Issue 

By Jennifer Thompson

The recent spate of food poisoning in Victoria has heightened concern over safety. In response, national health officials are only proposing to improve company-operated "quality assurance" programs — industry self-regulation. But the real cause of the problem is poor enforcement of food safety standards due to federal government cuts to food inspection staff,

Felicity Rafferty from the Community and Public Sector Union's food inspectors group told Green Left Weekly that without government enforcement of food standards, companies, such as the one involved in the South Australian meat contamination scandal two years ago, could take risks and get away with them.

Of great concern in that instance, said Rafferty, was that the company was aware of the risks it was taking because its own food technologists had told it. "Because there was no enforcement, the company ... took a risk that nothing would happen." Someone died as a result. This makes it clear that self-regulation does not work, Rafferty said.

"Governments have bought right out of any enforcement responsibility, and that is why we are getting so many problems with food poisoning outbreaks and contaminated food", said Rafferty.

The government is relying on market forces. Supposedly, the industry and individual companies will do the right thing to preserve their reputation: if a company produces unsafe food it will get caught out and the market will drive it out of business or otherwise penalise it. "The flaw in that argument is that people have to die, or become disabled, before the market cuts in", Rafferty said.

Prevention is the way to deal with these issues, said Rafferty. It is the government's responsibility to put controls in place aimed at preventing contamination at the very first stage of the production process.

"Food, especially meat, is a highly volatile product and it has a long way to go before it winds up on someone's plate", noted Rafferty. For example, a manufactured product such as salami involves an initial production process, and is then transported to a boning room which sells and transports the meat to another company. Once that company has put it through its production process, it is transported to the retail outlet.

At every stage in the chain there is scope for bacteria to multiply "exponentially", said Rafferty. If the temperature is not right, or the product is contaminated to start with, the result can be very dangerous even before the final manufacturing process, which relies on a heat treatment. "If it's already highly contaminated, the chances are the cooking may not fix the problem", she said.

Deregulation

The federal government is responsible for food designed for export, and the states have responsibility for inspecting food for domestic consumption. But a lot of export meat is distributed domestically because big abattoirs sell to both markets. "In the state systems there is a blend of export and domestic-prepared meat that finds its way on to the domestic market", Rafferty explained.

What's happening in Victoria clearly demonstrates the result of deregulation. "Government just isn't playing its part ... and yet it is accountable to the public for the safety of the food supply", said Rafferty.

The South Australian and Victorian food poisoning cases follow food safety cuts by Liberal state governments that have taken place alongside federal Labor and now Liberal government cuts to quarantine and inspection services.

An early 1980s food poisoning outbreak in Victorian and a kangaroo for beef substitution racket led to a 1982 royal commission. In 1986, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service was formed, and its funding was boosted after a 1987 chemical residues crisis, which threatened Australia's meat export trade to the USA.

However, in a November 1991 speech, the primary industries minister, Labor's Alan Griffiths, said that AQIS was "very much part of the government's agenda for micro-economic reform". The introduction of "user pays" — full cost recovery — in January 1991 allowed the government to claim that "industry" no longer wanted the same level of inspection. "Quality assurance" was gradually introduced from 1990, replacing inspection services with industry self-regulation and random inspections.

In 1991 Griffiths predicted that the inspection work force would decline by about 25% in the following two to three years. The number of AQIS inspection staff had already declined from about 2250 to fewer than 1650 during a rise in production.

In 1993, new primary industry minister Simon Crean promised a "reduction in AQIS costs to industry". In March 1994, new primary industries minister Bob Collins described cuts in AQIS as "vital to Australia's international trading competitiveness and our economic health".

The AQIS central office was restructured in 1994, with a large number of "voluntary" redundancies. The Victorian and South Australian governments excluded AQIS from domestic meat inspection in July and December 1994 respectively.

In Victoria in July 1994, Rafferty said, government inspectors in domestic abattoirs, domestic boning rooms and knackeries were replaced by company self-regulation. The Victorian system, already mirrored in South Australia, is to be implemented in all the other states by July this year. The national meat inspection system will be totally deregulated in the name of competition policy.

Governments now seem to believe that their sole responsibility resides in developing standards for industry to comply with, said Rafferty. Hand in hand with standards there should be enforcement, but the government "merely wants to go in every month or three and do an audit of the company's quality assurance system".

Self-regulation

The Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) quality assurance system proposed by government health officers in response to the Victorian crisis is one such system. According to Rafferty, HACCP involves identifying the hazards, determining the risks that apply to those hazards and then setting in place a system which identifies all the critical control points in the production process, to address those hazards and minimise the risk.

"Government then comes around, or maybe a company on contract to the government, and they check [the company's] paper trail to see that they have been doing all the things they're supposed to be doing", said Rafferty. "In fact, all they're really doing is checking to make sure that you've filled in the boxes", because they can't determine "after the event" whether the work that goes with filling in the paper trail has been done.

Quality assurance systems are extremely useful management tools in the right place, said Rafferty. "But governments are now using HACCP to dupe the public into thinking that it is some highly scientific system that is going deliver them safe food."

It's an impossible guarantee, she said, because the system is only as good as the company which is implementing it and the training of the employees monitoring the critical control points.

Fee for service

Rafferty said the dramatic drop in numbers of council environmental health officers and consequent fewer prosecutions of unsafe food outlets (highlighted by the Victorian Labor opposition) had contributed to the latest poisoning. "It is a ground plan that will guarantee that food safety problems get worse."

Competitive tendering in the local government arena, Rafferty said, "is like a fee-for-service thing. You have to put up your tender and the lowest priced tender usually wins the contract." In the Commonwealth area, fee for service means industry tries to reduce its costs, which leads to the situation where "there are no government inspectors whatsoever in the domestic meat industry in Victoria". Industry just didn't want to pay the price, and we're reaping the "benefits" of that now, she said.

A fee-for-service approach further down the inspection line only compounds the problem. "If you withdraw all meat inspectors from the domestic abattoir system, then you're even more reliant on people at the secondary inspection stage to pick up the problem", said Rafferty.

Meat inspectors are there to make sure contamination doesn't build up, and environmental health officers preserve cleanliness, but at a the end of the production stage rather than the beginning. "If you start winding back on environmental health officers, then you've got a very depleted buffer between food contamination and consumers."

Local governments across Australia are due to implement compulsory competitive tendering in July in order to fulfil the national competition policy endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments. Protection for the consumer is being minimised and, Rafferty says, the frightening thing is that "governments seem to be doing that quite knowingly".

The CPSU is demanding that the government stop deregulating. But Rafferty is worried that it will argue for more standards and greater penalties for non-compliance. "If they are getting rid of inspectors at every level, who is going to monitor for non-compliance? We've already seen that the level of prosecutions [in Victoria] has dropped remarkably. Standards on their own are not enough."

The government's role should not just be in risk assessment, Rafferty argues. It should ensure that there are sufficient inspectors to see that the standards are complied with. If the process gets out of control, somebody accountable must report it. "When you leave this to companies, things get out of control and become unsafe."

Proper enforcement of food safety standards doesn't mean taking companies to court for non-compliance, because it is too late then, said Rafferty. "Enforcement means government inspectors being there through the production process, ensuring that companies are complying with the standards."

Unfortunately, our governments would rather rely on the food industry deciding to put public health ahead of its profits — a frighteningly long shot.