Food Focus August 2007

Endosulfan: the story unfolds

Within 48 hours of being notified, New Zealand Food Safety Authority officials were, with the help of the meat industry, able to trace the source of a consignment of beef affected by traces of the pesticide endosulfan

Geoff Allen, NZFSA’s Director (Compliance and Investigation) says he is satisfied with the fines passed down to the west Auckland farmer who pleaded guilty to the non-approved use of the plant pesticide endosulfan.

Carl Houghton was fined $15000 plus court costs at Waitakere District Court in July for spraying endosulfan on 10 cattle at his Waimauku farm. His actions led to the suspension of New Zealand beef exports to Korea. Beef exports to seven other markets were also potentially affected.

In passing sentence, his honour Judge Lindsay Moore, told Waitakere District Court that farmers needed to understand the significance and seriousness of the consequences of their actions.

He said: “Anyone with any understanding of the importance of the meat trade to New Zealand … can only see in what happened here a disaster of national importance.”

When handing down the fines, Judge Moore made it clear it was not a benchmark sentence but an “absolute minimum” given the current means of Mr Houghton, and highlighted the need for “a very, very clear message” to be sent to the farming community. He said he believed that there was “still a major problem in this country over farmers’ attitudes towards agricultural chemicals”, adding, in essence, that they needed to understand the significance and seriousness of the consequences of their actions. “It comes back to this – if dealing with animals for slaughter, if you use something off label, take veterinary advice before use, not after. Anything less is a totally inadequate response.”

At an earlier court hearing Mr Houghton had admitted breaching regulated use of the product by spraying it on his cattle, and failing to notify the Northland-based processing plant when he later presented the animals for slaughter.

Geoff says “We are satisfied with the outcome. The court has clearly realised the seriousness of the offence. The fines serve as a warning to others that actions will have consequences, and that all food safety regulations must be followed.”

Authorities sound the alert

The fines come almost two years after NZFSA was first notified via the New Zealand High Commission in Seoul that Korean authorities had tested and found higher than expected levels of the pesticide endosulfan in a consignment of Korean bone-in beef (0.5ppm, compared with the accepted international level for meat fat of 0.1ppm).

Although the levels found were lower than those allowed on other foods, such as vegetables, their presence in meat indicated that good agricultural practice had not been followed.

As soon as the finding was discovered, the Korean government suspended all imports of New Zealand beef. NZSFA launched an immediate investigation as market access experts and compliance and investigation officials quickly set to work to discover the source of the contamination.

Carton number details relayed from Korean counterpart authorities and meat industry tracking systems uncovered the source and arrival times of all animals sent to the processing plant and helped to quickly narrow the nationwide search to a possible seven farms.

Investigations begin

Investigators began visiting each of these farms making enquiries and, within 48 hours, a farm in Waimauku was revealed as having sent for slaughter cattle that had been sprayed with endosulfan.

Information was then gathered which allowed NZFSA’s electronic certification (E-cert) system to begin tracing the movement of any other consignments aside from those sent to Korea that may have been affected.

“E-cert was invaluable in bringing about such a speedy result, as was the meat work’s traceability system,” says Geoff.

Within two weeks, all cartons of meat that had even the slightest chance of containing product from the affected animals, including 3200kg in 127 cartons in Korea, another 900kg in 77 cartons to Taiwan and consignments to Japan, the United States and Belgium, as well as several earmarked for use within New Zealand, had been tracked down and withdrawn.

Product from deer also farmed on the property and believed to have been exposed to the spray was traced and withdrawn for testing.

Isolated incident

Investigations continued at the farm and its environs to pin down the time and extent of the spray used and NZFSA was later able to confirm that the incident was isolated to the actions of one farmer.

After extensive discussions with NZFSA’s market access officials and on-site visits by its own investigators, Korea later downgraded its initial suspension to holding and testing all product and, still later, to holding and testing only product from the Northland-based plant that had processed the affected beef.

However, the incident saw some Korean importers turn away from New Zealand as a supplier: lucrative Korean military contracts, which normally accounted for around 35% of New Zealand’s beef exports, were lost.

“The actions of one farmer prompted one of the biggest and costliest NZFSA non-compliance investigations we have seen,” says Geoff.

Mr Houghton later pleaded guilty to two charges under the Animal Products Act and one under the Agricultural Compounds and Veterinary Medicines Act.

While not extensively used in New Zealand, endosulfan is used in some horticultural applications and when used according to label is not considered in itself to present a health risk to consumers. However it is not approved for use on animals or for use on animal fodder.

Catastrophe in waiting

Says Geoff: “New Zealand has a world-renowned reputation as a producer of safe food, and the actions of one farmer in applying a plant pesticide to animals could have been nationally catastrophic.

“For the meat processor affected, its staff and its law-abiding farmer suppliers, the local consequences were severe. The only positives to come out of the event were that it proved New Zealand’s systems allow for a speedy and full trace back, and that New Zealand’s active, transparent and cooperative approach is appreciated by our trading partners.

“NZFSA reminds all food producers that they need to follow the rules, which are there for good reason. Something that may seem harmless, or like a good idea at the farm level, could have a major impact on New Zealand food exports which are worth about $30 billion a year to New Zealand and represent around half the nation’s income.”

Latest figures show that in 2005 Korea was New Zealand’s second-largest market for frozen beef, with exports worth in excess of $200 million.