Monday, April 22, 2024

Keeping farm and vet chemicals out of our food

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NZ Food Safety’s work in this regard makes it the MedSafe of the ag and hort sector, says deputy director-general Vincent Arbuckle.
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By Vincent Arbuckle, deputy director-general at New Zealand Food Safety.

Agricultural compounds and veterinary medicines encompass a wide range of products that are critical to the success of New Zealand’s primary sector and are managed by NZ Food Safety. 

In very simple terms, we are the MedSafe equivalent for the agricultural and horticultural sector.

The rules governing these medicines and compounds are comparable to those of our major trading partners such as Australia, North America and the European Union. 

But they also recognise the different farming systems, trade practices, pests and diseases between countries where a one-size-fits-all-countries approach is not appropriate or practical.

People may not immediately think of New Zealand Food Safety (NZFS) when they think agricultural compounds and veterinary medicines. 

A key part of our work around agricultural compounds and veterinary medicines (ACVM) is related to the effect of these products on our food supply and ensuring that foods they are used on remain safe and suitable to eat.

ACVM make a significant contribution to the NZ economy. They include veterinary medicines, agricultural chemicals, fertilisers, animal nutritional products including pet food, inhibitors, and vertebrate toxic agents. 

A landmark 2019 report by the NZ Institute of Economic Research estimated the economic value of agricultural chemical products in NZ to be $350 million annual revenue at the wholesale level, and these products contribute between $7.5 billion and $11.4 bn of value that would otherwise be lost from land-based cropping industries. 

According to a KPMG 2021 report,the estimated economic value of the animal health industry is $430m annual revenue, contributing an estimated $12bn of economic value for NZ industries. 

In addition to supporting NZ’s primary sector, manufacturers export over $140m of animal health and crop protection products per year.

Inhibitors represent an important opportunity to mitigate the adverse impacts of an agricultural activity on the environment, or mitigate emissions that contribute to climate change relating to plants or animals.

They are still relatively new and not yet widely regulated internationally. NZ is one of the leading countries in the world to make regulatory changes to protect our people, animals, plants and primary industries exports.

Recently we formally received and accepted the first two inhibitor products for assessment for trade name registration. Both have been publicly notified in the New Zealand Gazette, and we continue to communicate with prospective applicants on the requirements for registration.

Antibiotics, antifungals and antivirals play a vital role in managing animal health in livestock and domestic pets and some antibiotics are used on plant crops, like apples and kiwifruit. 

Those used in the management of animal and plant health require registration under the ACVM Act, which is where we come in. 

Drug-resistant infections can cause disease that is difficult or impossible to treat in animals. This leads to poor animal welfare and health (and potentially could be fatal) as well as production losses, and can lead to crop failure for the horticulture industry. 

Notably, the World Health Organization has declared antimicrobial resistance (AMR) to be one of the top 10 global public health threats facing humanity.

While the use of veterinary antibiotics in NZ is low compared with other countries, the continued vigilance of veterinarians, farmers and other industry stakeholders, as well as our ongoing monitoring and support, are all vital to minimise the incidence of AMR.

NZFS recognises the importance of AMR and has a dedicated team working in this area. We work with the NZ veterinary and primary industry sectors to promote careful use of antibiotics and encourage infection prevention strategies such as good hygiene and vaccination and undertake surveillance and monitoring, which includes auditing of the sectors. 

Regular reporting of antibiotic sales shows a trend of decrease in the sale of antibiotics in animals. This can be put down to a concerted effort from veterinarians, industry sectors and NZFS to ensure these important veterinary medicines are used appropriately. 

Maximum residue levels (MRL) are a regulatory tool to manage good agricultural practice of ACVMs while ensuring food safety. The level the MRL is set at means residues in food commodities should not be exceeded when the product is used as authorised (that is, according to the ACVM’s good agricultural practice). 

These MRLs are published in a Food Notice, and it is regularly updated. All MRL proposals are publicly consulted on. 

While any exceeding of an MRL is of concern, it is rarely of a food safety issue due to the conservatism built into setting the MRL. Rather, it is an indicator that the product may not have been used as authorised.

Under the ACVM Act, ACVM must be authorised before they are imported, manufactured, sold, or used in NZ. As stewards of the ACVM Act, we have compliance tools to ensure that New Zealanders have appropriate access to agricultural compounds and veterinary medicines, while minimising risk to people, animals, food supply and our exports.  

These tools include the ability to recall any products, suspend registrations, and issue prohibition notice on products. 

As part of our work towards continuous improvement, we recently started publishing recalls of ACVM products on our website, and we encourage people to sign up for alerts. There is also the ability to reassess registered products and the outcome could lead to changes in controls through to de-registering (taking the products off the market). 

These mechanisms to investigate non-compliant use of ACVMs should provide confidence to the consumer and industry. 

I am proud of the work of our ACVM team and their commitment and significant contributions to our primary sectors, food safety and healthy pets and other animals in NZ.  

Anyone interested in following ACVM developments can sign up for our monthly ACVM News & Views newsletter

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