Lettuce Know

New Zealand. Land of milk, manuka honey, kiwifruit, giant fleeced marinos, football playing rams, happy bulls producing record amounts of semen and very unhappy consumers whose 5+ a day programme has been hamstrung by an outbreak of painful food poisoning allegedly from contaminated lettuces – or perhaps carrots.

Shrek, Big Ben and Smason - no shappgy sheep tales with these fellas

Shrek, Big Ben and Samson – no shaggy sheep tales with these fellas

I can’t tell you more in case I name a supplier, a producer, a brand or a retailer who may not be associated with said contaminated veges and I can neither confirm nor deny if carrots and/or lettuces are the suspected culprits currently under investigation.

download (1)Peter Rabbit wouldn’t have put up with these prevarications. “No” is not in his anthropomorphic vocabulary.

He would have had the source contained instantly, his tummy ache cured by extra parsley and spoonfuls of chamomile tea, Mr McGregor retired and lettuce and carrot eaters would know definitively everything they not only needed to know but also wanted to know about the risks that they may have been exposed to and at the very least would know what fresh vegetables were safe to buy.

But this is New Zealand where our government and its ministries and officers seem to take their cues on transparency, right to know and butt covering from the Sir Humphrey school of two kinds of secrets:  the kind you want to keep in, and the kind you don’t dare to let out. And while the powers that be follow the “you only need to know things on a need to know basis” ethos, I don’t. I need to know everything so I can judge whether or not I need to know it.

We’re talking about bagged supermarket lettuce, and possibly carrots, as the likely contaminated foods. How hard is it to use the transparent track and trace systems every food producer and retailer has documented to identify the origin of the outbreak of Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, which is linked to rodent droppings and causes appendicitis like pain and crippling diarrhoea?

Apparently it is very hard indeed and there are so many variables. So said Scott Gallacher, Deputy Director General of General Regulation and Assurance at MPI. Don’t worry you’re not the only one who didn’t know the acronym spells out Ministry of Primary Industries, the result of a merger in 2012 of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the Ministry of Fisheries and the New Zealand Food Safety Authority. The Chinese didn’t know either so left a consignment of our export meat stranded on a dock for too long while MPI got the paperwork sorted and proved it was still MAF with a new name.

“In the case of lettuce, which is identified as a food to investigate, there are numerous varieties of whole lettuce, leaves, leaves of mixed varieties, and pre-mixed salads, covered by many brands,” said Mr Gallacher, speaking very slowly and deliberately as his media trainers had instructed, in one of his few interviews to explain the complexity of the issue and saying much without saying anything so to prolong the anxiety of the lettuce eating public.

download“Lettuce is a very commonly consumed food, which was consumed throughout this outbreak with the vast majority of consumers not becoming ill.”

We’re with you Scott, but getting impatient.

“We are getting a lot of information, building a picture and investigating many avenues.”

You’re losing us Scott. We need facts.

“It is not a simple situation where we can recall a single product. It is not definitively linked to any one producer, distributor, wholesaler or retailer. The ESR case-control studies have provided useful pointers for continuing investigation.”

Okay Scott you’ve lost us. Who are you protecting? We don’t want another demonstration of government prowess in obfuscation. Tell us straight: what veges and what brands are are being investigated . I’m waiting.

The retailer involved, Foodstuffs, outed itself, and went to work. It identified the source of the outbreak to lettuce grown in one paddock on one supplier’s farm and removed from its shelves all bagged lettuce and carrots.

So consumer confidence is restored. No, not really. New Zealand is built on primary production and a reputation for quality and safety excellence. We’ve had a few too many scares recently that have rattled our confidence from the Fonterra Sanlu scandal, Fonterra DCD scare, the Fonterra botulism that wasn’t scare that dented New Zealand’s trading reputation internationally for transparency and delivery of consistently safe, quality dairy, the great swede mystery knocking over cows, the disaster of the Psa virus creeping in through our borders to wipe out gold kiwifruit vines, water and rivers that may have been poisoned by 1080 drops for a minute or two and now tainted lettuce.

Nothing makes you feel more betrayed and sick than learning that you might have been buying contaminated food.

You would think that in a country so dependent on its reputation for food quality that we could trust the authorities responsible for policing food safety, in this case the Ministry for Primary Industries, to put consumers first and that their phalanxes of trained bureaucrats would move heaven and earth to get the news out to consumers pronto that there could be a health risk from eating certain veges. keep calmdownloadBut no.

Our regulators knew better and kept mum so mum didn’t get over excited. Apparently they must have read the Orwellian manual on the contagion of fast spreading hysteria and panic from too much information.

Worthy, but trying to be young at heart metropolitan newspaper, the NZ Herald, opined sagely that “our official watchdogs on food safety in the Ministry for Primary Industries need a reminder of whose interests they serve. Their primary duty is not to the producers and retailers of groceries, as it appears to have been in an outbreak of food poisoning recently”. The Herald suggested it was time that food safety responsibility move to the Ministry of Health on the basis that the health and safety of the people, you and me in other words, would come first and that in the name of public interest there would be no fear of naming names, particularly of suspect veges.

It could also be argued that MPI may want to look at its priorities even when it might seem diverting to press a food hygiene case against a 72 year old Ekatahuna grandmother who hand-milks four cows.

Biddy Fraser-Davies’ boutique Cwmglyn Farmhouse Cheese has won a silver medal at the World Cheese Awards, been served up at Prince George’s Government House playdate, and is on the menu at top restaurants.

small cheese

Go Biddy. You have every reason to be cheesed off.

But now she’s fight for survival and she can’t afford to pay the price to win. Food safety officers from MPI have demanded that she get a $3680 risk management audit to comply with food safety laws by November 1 or be forced to close. That sum amounts to about a ninth of her annual turnover from a business that produces less than a tonne of cheese a year and earns her about $33,000.

Mrs Fraser-Davies, whose cheeses are named after each of her cows, believes she is being made to pay for the Fonterra contamination fallout, and says food hygiene rules do not allow for cottage industries such as hers.

“In a country where the whole export industry relies on dairy production, they can’t believe that a mad old woman can make a living out of four cows. They’re just covering their butts.”

Butt-covering, cover ups, disinformation, situational ethics and paucity of truth must not become part of New Zealand’s DNA. We’re an open society with expectations of an open government that values freedom of information and respects the rights of citizens to know what is going on in our “best interests” and then voice our opinions on those goings on.

The handling by government authorities of the contaminated lettuce saga is just the tip of the iceberg. And it’s good to see citizen consumers concerned and speaking out on our right to know.

Our government is negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), a sweeping international agreement that could have a huge effect on the lives of ordinary Kiwis.  And the negotiations are secret. If it weren’t for WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden we wouldn’t know that:

  • Most restrictions on foreign investment will be frozen and rolled back even further
  • Big overseas companies will be able to sue the New Zealand government for millions in damages in secretive offshore tribunals, claiming that new laws and regulations like a ban on fracking, smoking control laws, or a cap on electricity prices could seriously undermine the value of their investments
  • Foreign banks, insurance companies and money traders will be able to gain more powers to challenge laws designed to prevent another financial crisis; and overseas property dealers could contest moves to burst the property bubble, such as a capital gains tax.
  • Medicines will become more expensive as big pharmaceutical companies gain more influence over PHARMAC, and restrictions are placed on generic medicines
  • Copyright laws will be toughened and more harshly enforced, restricting internet freedom and access to information, costing libraries, schools, and businesses, and stifling innovation
  • Parallel importing will be banned – and much more.

Our government says the agreement will “deepen economic ties between its diverse members by opening up trade in goods and services, boosting investment flows, and promoting closer links across a range of economic policy and regulatory issues”. Really? Remember the lettuce! It’s an iceberg!

“You can fool some people sometimes

But you can’t fool all the people all the time

And now you see the light, stand up for your right

Get up, stand up, stand up for your right…”

Bob Marley


PS: If you want to see the football playing sheep go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIbbiBlRBFE

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