Digest

opinion: give nz cheese a chance

Anna Tait-Jamieson recently joined two artisan cheesemakers at the Beehive to present submissions to the Primary Production Select Committee, which is currently working on the NZ Food Safety Reform Bill.

A few weeks ago I spent the morning at the Beehive in support of artisan cheesemakers Biddy Fraser-Davies (left, of Cwmglyn Farmhouse Cheese) and Jill Whalley (far left, of Mt Eliza Cheese). The three of us presented submissions to the Primary Production Select Committee – the committee is currently labouring over the NZ Food Safety Reform Bill. The proposed reforms are a reaction to Fonterra’s whey protein contamination scare back in 2013. The bill aims to tighten the regulatory framework.
Biddy and Jill gave compelling accounts of the costs they already face in complying with laws designed for the big dairy companies. My submission outlined the reasons why we need to support our artisan cheesemakers.

My verbal submission as follows:
I am a former food manufacturer, now a journalist and food writer. For the past 15 years I’ve written feature stories about New Zealand’s artisan producers – including many who operate in the dairy sector. In light of the proposed tightening of our Food Safety laws I want to speak in support of the small scale cheesemakers who are already suffering from the significant costs and constraints of the current regulations. I know many of them are too intimidated to speak for themselves.

I’ve stood alongside Biddy and Jill and Chris Whalley as they make their cheese and I can tell you they are good operators – their premises are spotless, they know the science, they monitor, test and record every step of the process, and they produce very good, characterful cheese – cheese that New Zealanders can be proud of.

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 today 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 (thanks to Lewis Road Creamery).

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 who saw value in further developing the category. It’s 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 as us. 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. Bills such as this one will continue to stifle 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 and Jill we wouldn’t be making raw cow’s milk 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 per cent of their revenue in compliance costs – as Biddy will this year – they’d be screaming, and the regulators 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.

As you go through this Food Safety Reform Bill, clause by clause, put yourselves 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.

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