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Food standards chiefs thrives on balancing competing interests

As a Canberra veterinary surgeon, Dr Sandra Cuthbert handled many sensitive and complex issues in emotionally charged situations. Now, as CEO of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), Cuthbert is using some of those skills to help keep citizens safe and well informed about their food choices.

Dealing with many diverse stakeholders inevitably means Cuthbert spends a fair proportion of her time balancing competing interests. Controversial and polarizing issues such as energy labeling on alcoholic drinks, approving genetically modified foods and aligning food classifications attract the attention of pressure groups and industry lobbyists.

Cuthbert, who became FSANZ CEO in March, says working with people who hold opposing views is simply part of the job. “It’s a really interesting and important part of my role to ensure that I understand all of the different stakeholders’ perspectives,” she says. “The ultimate goal is to ensure consumers are aware of what it is they’re purchasing and can make informed choices, and ensuring we’re considering the safety aspects of what it is that’s being approved.”

Cuthbert says the independent agency’s role is to find a path forward on sometimes contested issues but always within the scope of government policy objectives. “It’s an exciting challenge, working out how we can best consider all of these different stakeholder views.”

While FSANZ’s primary role is to manage acute food safety concerns – not allowing harmful food products to appear on supermarket shelves, for instance – it also wants to encourage greater harmonization between countries to confront global supply chain disruptions. “That’s a critical challenge we’re going through right now,” she says.

In the longer term, Cuthbert will be ready to deliver reforms from the Department of Health’s FSANZ Act review. The 1991 FSANZ Act underpins the joint Australia and New Zealand food regulatory system and this review is examining whether the act remains fit for purpose. Following extensive consultation with the industry, a draft report is in the hands of the country’s food ministers.

Cuthbert expects the review will lead to more streamlined, less bureaucratic testing processes and stakeholder consultation. “I’m really excited about the possibilities that might come from that,” she says. “I’m hopeful an agreement can be made sooner rather than later so that we can move forward and implement some of the possibilities of being more risk proportionate and agile.”

It’s unclear if the review will look at FSANZ’s role in responding to the long-term health impacts of food consumption, such as obesity or cancer risks.

“The policy considerations that go into the diet of Australians are not within FSANZ’s remit, but we have an important role in helping to monitor the consumption patterns of various foods across the country,” she says. “The information we receive gets fed into that bigger policy picture as to how we can work with industry, consumers and public health advocates to ensure we’re supporting longer-term health objectives.”

Accepting opportunities and challenges

Having spent her first 20 years in Canada before studying to become a vet in Perth, Cuthbert happily admits becoming FSANZ CEO “wasn’t on my plan”. “I didn’t have a plan, to be honest,” she says. “I just enjoyed taking opportunities as they came.”

She says her time as a vet – especially after she moved to the ACT – was a great learning experience. “That’s a really challenging role,” she says. “Getting to talk to people and help with the day-to-day situations with their pets was lovely. It’s quite a different scope that I’m able to look at the world from in this role, which I’m grateful for.”

So how did a Canberra vet end up running the country’s food standards agency? “I ended up working in a clinic that signed off the export certification for animals to go overseas with their owners,” she explains. “To become accredited, I needed to do a program with the Department of Agriculture. I learned more about it and ended up shifting from private practice into working on the importation of live animals.”

Cuthbert’s responsibilities began with fertile egg imports before she moved on to wild horses and other pets. Then she looked after all biological products, including food. She ended up studying law at the University of Canberra and completing a legislative review of all products entering the country.

“I didn’t set out with a plan of making certain career steps strategically so that I could end up where I am,” she says. “It was much more about enjoying and learning and continuing to grow.” She worked in Finance and Prime Minister and Cabinet and then became interim FSANZ CEO last August.

Cuthbert says public servants need to make the most of every role. “I’ve enjoyed every job I’ve done,” she says. “I was really proud of what I’d achieved for the public; I kept my eyes open and accepted opportunities that came my way. I always worked with people I looked up to as well, and it was great to get their guidance and advice along the way.

“It’s also about staying true to yourself. I made sure I continued to choose jobs that aligned with my values.”


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