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NZIFST 2017 J C Andrews Award address

– A game of two halves

Roy Biggs

 

Following is Roy Biggs address presented at the NZIFST Conference as the recipient of the 2017 J C Andrews Award. This award celebrates the achievements of Dr John Clark Andrews as the catalyst to the setting up of the Massey University Food Technology degree.

 

Thank you to the NZIFST for the J C Andrews award and I am very conscious of the great honour paid to me. To use a sporting analogy my career in the food industry has been one of two halves in more than one way:

  • Half in the UK and half in NZ
  • Half in production, factory and company management, the other half in technical management
  • Half in the dairy industry (mainly cheese), half in the processing arm of the intensive farming sector – salmon and poultry

Blessed are the Cheesemakers

(Monty Python – Life of Brian)

I started work on the 1st August 1970 as a management trainee for the Milk Marketing Board (MMB) of England and Wales at their Four Crosses creamery, just on the Welsh side of the border with England. The MMB were enlightened enough to appoint management trainees as trainee cheesemakers or buttermakers, in case we didn’t make the grade. Only 3 out of the 7 trainees in my year were accepted for sponsorship to study for a diploma in food technology (with a dairy technology specialisation).

The Four Crosses Creamery made English territorial varieties, mostly Cheshire. Commercial reality came very fast – batches that were too fast were put into Caerphilly or Lancashire boxes, those that were too slow became the Wensleydale of Wallace and Grommit fame. The creamery used the Lewis system of starter propagation. Thirty-six mother cultures of which 6 were selected each day for the intermediate culture, followed by the bulk culture. This process, together with bacteriophage control and hygiene assurance slides was the start of my interest in the uses of microbiology in food processing. Not particularly the methods used but more the interpretation of results and understanding of the actions required to bring processes back into control.

My interest led me to be seconded to another cheese factory for a few weeks. When I asked why, I was informed that it was because I had finally learned which end of a pipette to suck! Following eleven years experience with the MMB, I became the factory manager at Goodwins Cheese and then went on to manage the North of Scotland Milk Marketing Board operation on the Orkney Islands. Working with the team there (most notably Assistant Manager Stanley

Following eleven years experience with the MMB, I became the factory manager at Goodwins Cheese and then went on to manage the North of Scotland Milk Marketing Board operation on the Orkney Islands. Working with the team there (most notably Assistant Manager Stanley Finlayson) we developed a “dry stir” method of making cheddar. This technique had been used for making curd for processed cheese in the USA but we adapted it to make a premium cheddar, perhaps my most significant contribution was the use of a thermophilic culture (microbiological understanding once again led to a successful outcome) to continue acid production during the “scald” and “stir” parts of the process. The quality improved dramatically (winning many first prizes at the Nantwich and other cheese shows) and labour costs were much lower. This initiative plus other efficiencies made the creamery profitable and assured its’ survival.

A sortie into Salmon

Leaving the Orkney Islands I became the first manager of the largest salmon processing factory in the UK (second largest in Europe at that time). This was built on a green field site in Fort William and the task included recruitment and training of staff in addition to commissioning the factory. Marine Harvest (a Unilever subsidiary) dominated the Scottish Salmon industry and this was my first taste of processing the output of an intensive agriculture industry. I enjoyed the challenge but working for a large multi-national corporate is not to everyone’s’ taste so I moved back North to become the General Manager of Orkney Salmon for 9 months before returning to cheese.

The call of the cheese

After a brief time managing a small cheese operation in mid-Wales (where we successfully introduced the “dry stir” method using conventional cheese moulds rather than blockformers) I gained my first technical appointment. The new Food Safety Act was starting to bite and there was a shortage of people who understood HACCP. Haslington cheese was the largest supplier of cheese (grated, diced and in blocks) to the food industry, and thus needed HACCP plans and competent technical management. I also assisted suppliers with cheesemaking problems (many of them microbiological) and became a member of the judging team at the prestigious Nantwich cheese show, On an annual basis I audited suppliers in Switzerland, Germany, Holland and Ireland – it was a hard life! I left Haslington to become the general manager of another cheese company, but a disagreement about ethics meant I became unemployed a few months later. I decided to become a consultant whilst awaiting the outcome of our family application to emigrate to New Zealand. Inevitably my clients included cheesemakers, but I also completed a HACCP plan and operational risk assessment for a tea and coffee company. Most of my time as a consultant was spent running a laundry in the north of England.

New horizons in the new world – chicken

Getting work as a consultant is highly dependent upon both reputation and contacts, I had neither when I arrived in New Zealand. My other mainstay, the dairy industry, was amalgamating in 1997 with many very competent and well known factory managers seeking employment. No place for an outsider.

After a short period as an immigration consultant I became the Regional Technical Manager for the Lower North Island for Tegel Foods Ltd. So began a steep learning curve in poultry production and processing.

One month after joining, a vertically transmitted strain of Salmonella was found in a grandparent flock – further testing revealed that it was in their progeny - the parent flocks and in broilers. I was back to microbiological problems and their control. I became part of the team dealing with the problem and two years later I was leading the project. In 1998 Sharon Wagenner and I travelled to Athens, Georgia to meet with the experts from the United States Department of Agriculture – Agriculture Research Service (USDA ARS) who confirmed that we were on the right track. From then onwards we had access to world class research on both Salmonella (Nelson Cox, Stan Boardman, John Cason, Mark Berang, Doug Crosby and many others and on Campylobacter Norman Stern. I have enjoyed maintaining those relationships over many years. A few years later I met my mentor and good friend John Marcy – Professor of Extension Science at the Centre for Excellence in Poultry Science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Salmonella

The Salmonella story of the New Zealand Poultry Industry is not as well known as the Campylobacter experience but, I think it is more impressive. From a baseline of 17% (published in 1996 by MAF) to the NMD data for this decade showing an average annual (2000 samples per annum) rate of less than 0.5%. The improvement was due to adopting the following principles:

  • Salmonella-free day old chicks (broilers generally not vaccinated)
  • Salmonella free feed
  • Reasonable Biosecurity on broiler farms

The industry has a good understanding of how Salmonella gets into the flocks and can thus implement effective prevention measures This is not the case for Campylobacter

Campylobacter

Actions taken by the industry/MPI joint strategy have reduced the human illness by 60%, from 16000 cases per year to <7000. Nine-thousand fewer people getting sick every year. A formidable achievement that we are all proud of!

In 2006 the case rate of human Campylobacteriosis was 380 per 100,000 population. Poultry was responsible for 80% of that – 304 per 100,000. The current case rate (removing the waterborne outbreak in Hawkes Bay last year) is c.150 per 100,000. Poultry is responsible for between 40% and 50% of that, approximately the same rate as ruminant sources. Therefore the human case rate attributable to poultry has reduced from greater than 300 to 70-75. A massive 4 times reduction!

Even though progress has been remarkable, the headline level of c.150 is still high internationally, the joint strategy group between the industry and MPI, together with other stakeholders, is continuing to work to reduce these levels. The industry Veterinary/technical Committee is the group that completes investigations on new interventions, runs trials and provides assistance to industry members that are struggling. I’m am very pleased to have been a member of this group since 1999.

Salmonella can be controlled at source, unfortunately Campylobacter cannot, many groups around the world have tried but no one has succeeded. Controls for Campylobacter are implemented at the processing plant, New Zealand has become well known for understanding how this can be done.

Listeria

Tegel is a very large (in New Zealand terms) producer of cooked products with hundreds of tonnes produced weekly, much of which is exported. There is an extensive Pathogen Control Programme which includes checks of HACCP controls and microbiological results before Ready-To-Eat products are released. Inevitably such extensive controls pick up issues over the years, these have all been resolved effectively, sometimes at very significant cost, where walls and floors have had to be replaced. I have given many talks on these case studies at conferences, seminars and workshops in New Zealand and overseas. It was always good to work with the high performing technical group at Tegel and the wider poultry industry.

Other activities and achievements

Presentations at conferences have also included (in addition to talking about Salmonella, Campylobacter and Listeria)

  • The Food Safety of an innovative award winning cook and reheat product – NZIFST keynote speech
  • Public Health impacts of Company decision making
  • The importance of Food Safety for corporate brand protection
  • How to survive audits
  • Australasian representative on the International Writing Committee on Salmonella – organised by the University of Georgia and later published in the Journal of Food Protection
  • Becoming a Fellow of the NZIFST in 2011
  • Chair of the New Zealand Association for Food Protection (NZAFP) for two years 2013/2014
  • Giving young people opportunities for development – in collaboration with Massey University (20+ summer internships with 4th year projects, 3 Masters projects)

Current challenges

This is a personal view of the challenges that face the food industry in New Zealand, it does not represent the views of the Institute or any other body that I have been associated with.

Hygienic design of equipment

This is not unique to New Zealand. The design of equipment is usually fit for purpose in terms of meeting the technological need but far from adequate when considering hygienic processing and practical cleaning and sanitisation. This is very problematic for many producers of high risk foods. My colleague and friend David Lowry is leading the charge on this topic and I fully support his work. I am sure it will become more widely known over the next few months.

Accountability

Not always done well in New Zealand. I don’t mean that everyone who makes a mistake should be dismissed or encouraged to resign. Simply that their manager should have a discussion with them, so that they understand that the decision, or behaviour did not meet the expectations of the organisation or other team members. A learning opportunity for the employee and a reinforcement of the culture for the organisation.

Poor understanding of the role of the social sciences in food safety

“It’s all about the people”

Peter Drucker – widely acknowledged as the most influential management thinker of the past century.

Food Safety, Quality and Occupational Health and Safety – these are all about peoples’ behaviour. A food safety culture is dependent upon the behaviour of the people, management must learn how to promote good behaviours and discourage poor behaviour if they want a good business that has both a food safety culture and can successfully and rapidly adapt to the commercial challenges they will face. The most successful business leaders understand and seek to implement policies that are underpinned by this concept. We all need to be good scientists and technologists but we also have to understand what motivates and drives people. That joint understanding (science and people) will be the basis of our success both as individuals and as an industry.

Risk-averse behaviour

“The Policy of being too cautious is the greatest risk of all”, Jawaharlal Nehru – first Prime Minister of India.

I fear that our regulators may be becoming too risk averse, I am not alone with this feeling – I have had discussions about this with a number of people over the last year. I do not wish to be critical of MPI, I think they do a good job with the resources available. I admire the motivation of the people within the Ministry, many of them could earn a higher income internationally or in industry but they are committed to making a difference by development and implementation of sound policies and enforcement action against those who choose to ignore them. In the spirit of the above comments about the drivers for people let’s examine the messages that the community sends to MPI.

  • The government is innately risk averse – it has to be to maintain the confidence of the people. The general population does not have an understanding of “risk” and expects the government to keep them safe. Ministers do not want their departments to be involved in controversy, particularly incidents that could be avoided.
  • MPI cannot, and does not have experience of all food sectors, particularly where highly innovative products and processes are proposed
  • Both individuals and the organisation face a severe reaction if a decision leads to significant problems
  • All staff have high workloads, this is even more severe for the experienced and knowledgeable senior people. Staff may not have the time available to fully understand the proposals for innovative products

Given the above it is understandable that the culture may become more risk averse over time.

However, some senior people in the food industry think that the balance may now be “out of true”, and fear this approach will stifle innovation and reduce progress towards the stated objective of doubling exports by 2025. They also think that New Zealand may be losing its reputation for innovation and invention.

A potential solution?

We have to find a way to support MPI by suggesting a resolution for organisations that feel that their rejected, innovative proposal is worthy of further consideration.

I propose that there should be a mechanism for review, at the cost of the proposer. There is a resource among the experienced people from within the NZIFST, FSSRC, universities and industry for MPI to use as advisors on proposals where MPI have limited expertise.

There should be a formal process around this where companies can request a review. Of course the final decision would have to be a function of MPI, but does it have to be a simple – “yes, we fully support” or – “no, we do not believe this is a safe process”? There could be a range of options (some of these are in use by overseas jurisdictions):

  • Letter of no objection
  • Restricted distribution (eg no export, for general use only [not for vulnerable populations])
  • More data required in specific areas

The report could also include a timescale for review before a full support decision could be considered.

My future

I retired at the end of last year and immediately started work as a consultant. The future for me is:

  • Biggs Food Consultancy Ltd
  • More motorcycling on my Triumph Tiger 800
  • Travel and Photography (this year I’ve been to India, UK, USA and next month to Ireland)
  • More music – I play bass and acoustic guitar

Thank you to the Institute for the JC Andrews award. Thank you to the many people in the teams that I have been privileged to work with, both in the UK and New Zealand. It really is all about the people, and I have met and known some great people in a long career in the food industry.