I am a former food manufacturer, now a food journalist. For the past 15 years I’ve written and made feature stories about New Zealand’s artisan producers, including many who operate in the dairy sector. In that context, I recently spoke to the Primary Production Select Committee in support of our artisan cheesemakers whose businesses are threatened by New Zealand’s same-size-fits-all food safety laws.
The government line on dairy – one that’s shared by the big dairy companies – is that there can be no compromise on food safety and therefore no allowances made for the scale of production.
Cheesemakers have no argument with the need to ensure their cheeses are safe – so long as the testing regime can be shown to be proportionate to the risk. They also take issue with the cost of verification and compliance, which unfairly impacts on their bottom line. (Unfairly in that the costs bear no relation to revenue, resulting in the ridiculous situation whereby a micro cheese business can pay more in fees than it pays for its milk.)
The bill in front of the select committee (NZ Food Safety Reform Bill) was prompted by Fonterra’s whey contamination scare in 2013. It aimed to tighten the procedures around such events, but it also drew submissions from people with wider concerns about NZ’s food safety laws, notably raw milk cheesemakers Biddy Fraser-Davies (Cwmglyn Farmhouse Cheese) and Jill Whalley (Mt Eliza Cheese) who used the platform to present their case for artisan cheesemakers. Both gave compelling accounts of the costs they face in complying with food safety laws designed for the big dairy companies.
I’m familiar with both these cheesemakers and I can vouch for their diligence in managing the risks associated with raw milk. I can also vouch for their cheese. It’s of high quality, safe to eat and full of character. They make cheese that New Zealanders can be proud of. That, more than anything, encouraged me to join them as they took their cheese and their arguments to parliament.
My own submission, as follows, outlined the reasons why we need to support our artisan cheesemakers:
“New Zealand is the world’s leading dairy exporter. Milk, butter and cheese: it’s how the world sees us, and yet our food safety laws make it nearly impossible for our artisan dairies to operate. Listen to the submissions from Cwmglyn and Mt Eliza Cheese and you’ll wonder how these businesses make any money at all. I believe we are reaching a tipping point – by trying to eliminate risk, we risk losing the artisan sector.
We need these small businesses to succeed because they do what the big companies don’t. They innovate, they set trends, they test the market, and the big companies follow.
You see it across all food categories – craft beer, artisan bread, coffee, ice cream, even butter.
I speak from experience having introduced fresh pasta to New Zealand many years ago. We started small, built the business over several years (with no food safety issues) then sold it to a multi-national company who saw value in further developing the category. Fresh pasta is now mainstream.
Could we have built that business under the current and proposed food safety regulations? Given the compliance costs, I don’t think so. Neither, I suspect, would Kapiti Cheese who started at the same time. They’re now owned by Fonterra. That’s how it works in the food industry. Small companies innovate, big companies follow, or take over.
So I find it strange that on the one hand we talk about the need to add value to our dairy industry and on the other hand we pass laws that make it extremely difficult for people to do so. Heavy handed regulation stifles innovation – to the detriment of the industry as a whole.
Without the artisans we wouldn’t be making goat and ewe’s milk cheeses – products with enormous potential. Without people like Biddy Fraser-Davies and Jill Whalley we wouldn’t be making raw milk cow cheese, so why do we insist their cheeses meet a much higher standard than raw milk cheese imported from Europe? Where is the sense in that?
Of course we need to keep our food safe but this is risk management gone mad. It’s paranoid and it’s unfair. If Fonterra had to pay more than 40% of its revenue in compliance costs – as Biddy will this year – its farmers would be screaming, and the auditors would be making more than the producers.
It’s high time that dairy scientists and MPI got together with the specialist cheesemakers to work out a sensible validation and testing regime that’s appropriate to the scale of their smaller non-export businesses. And then maybe their compliance costs could be subsidised by the bigger dairy companies who stand to gain the most from a well-supported artisan sector.
I’d ask the people who draft our food safety laws to put themselves in the shoes of small businesses who want to create new products, and try to strike a balance between the need to minimise risk and the need to create an environment that fosters the sort of innovation that will add value to our most important primary industry.”
Sometimes the best ideas come too late. It occurred to me, as I left the committee room, that I should have supported my argument with reference to the wine industry. What better example of how an industry can include both artisan and large-scale producers to the benefit of both. New Zealand’s reputation as a wine producer benefits hugely from the presence of award-winning boutique producers such as Ata Rangi, Te Mata and Felton Road. And they in turn benefit from the international marketing effort of the larger New Zealand wine companies.
If the wine industry can cover both ends of the market with such success, then I see no reason why the dairy industry shouldn’t follow suit. Create the right regulatory environment, encourage the artisan producers, and there’s no reason why our world class reputation for wine shouldn’t be matched by that of our cheese.