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New year, new horizons
  1. John Bassett


New Zealander John Bassett has had a varied career, working in practice, government and the food industry. He is currently leading a team of microbiologists and modellers who help R&D ensure safety in the design of food, home care and personal care products for Unilever. In February he will be leaving the company to consider his next role

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LOOKING back at the influences on my decision to enter vet school I can pick out a couple that now appear naive. First, I had been doing a bit of betting on the horses while at boarding school and at least had the sense to see that this was not a way to make money out of racing – equine vets seemed to get the returns without the risk, and I was enthralled by the athleticism and beauty of a race-ready animal. Secondly, my two older brothers were doctors and I didn't want to copy them, so in an era when professional degrees were what you did if you were able, I chose veterinary medicine.

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Part way through my BVSc at Massey University I wondered if I had made the right choice; should I have chosen to do medicine instead? With some experience of seeing practice I had glimpsed some less attractive aspects of the racing industry, and I was finding that I had a strong desire to work with people. Luckily, it became clear that veterinary science is all about working with people. I also had a fantastic lecturer in the late David Blackmore, who had opened up my thinking on ethics, animal welfare and public health, and was one of the rare breed at the time who encouraged us to think rather than listen and repeat.

Working in practice

Like many New Zealanders I felt I had to leave the country as soon as possible for some ‘overseas experience’. Without waiting for my graduation ceremony, I headed off to London, backpacking through Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand on the way. For someone who had never been further than Australia, south-east Asia was an eye-opening experience, not least the shock from visiting some vets and seeing the lack of resources and training. In an area where human life was a struggle, animal health and welfare didn't get a look in.

London was equally fascinating for a young New Zealander, but I wanted to be where I could plunge into the ‘real England’, not seen through the lens of a group of ex-pats. I quickly secured my first vet job in Surrey and spent a year being thrown in at the deep end, learning and doing a lot by myself in a busy mixed practice. When not tackling the steep learning curve, I was exploring every inch of the UK that I could. Considering I had also suffered from giardiasis picked up in south-east Asia, I can only now marvel at how I actually managed to enjoy that year – the excitement of the complete change of life must have sustained me. I spent the next year of my two-year visa working as a locum in a few practices and planning the return journey to NZ via Africa, overland with a small group delivering a truck to a village in Zimbabwe.

Back in NZ, I had the pleasure of working with some excellent vets in small animal practice, and it was a professionally fulfilling time. As software innovation was picking up, I also had the opportunity to explore the use of client databases to market services.

Working for the NZ government

When an opportunity came up to work for the NZ Ministry of Agriculture, assessing the risks to animal health from the importation of animals and animal products, I took the leap and entered an exciting world, where the consequences of getting it wrong could affect the whole country. It was a world where science, politics and communication played equally important parts in setting policy, and the chance to be involved in those difficult decisions as well as to travel for conferences and world animal health meetings made for an interesting mix.

Among setting standards for imports as unusual as an elephant-dung painting from the UK, and setting up an export certification system for animal hides, I conducted a risk assessment on the importation of dogs and cats that supported a new set of import standards. Trying to convince UK authorities that freedom from rabies, combined with a good surveillance system and appropriate border controls, should mean that cats and dogs going to the UK didn't need lengthy quarantine (and later vaccination and blood tests) for rabies was one thing I made little progress on.

However, what I had discovered was a passion for evidence-based decision making. I found the framework of risk assessment, as propagated by the world animal health and food bodies (OIE and Codex Alimentarius), a satisfying way to make sense of science and use it to make transparent and robust decisions. Once grabbed by this there was an opportunity to apply these approaches in food safety for the new Food Safety Authority (FSA) in NZ, modelled on the UK Food Standards Agency. I had found a way to satisfy my public health urges that had long been sitting dormant. While with the FSA, I led an animal and public health project on Salmonella Brandenburg, which was causing an epidemic of sheep abortions and farmer infections at the time, and was also a concern for food safety. It was a big research project across animal and public health, involving a wide range of stakeholders, and I enjoyed delivering the many aims, ranging from epidemiological studies to inform practical risk management on farm through to a more aspirational quantitative microbiological risk assessment.

Working in industry

When making changes in my career, I have found it works well not to change everything at once. Hence, I made the switch easily from animal health risk assessment in government to food safety risk assessment (microbiological) in government. My next move followed the same principle. I came back to the UK to work in a food safety risk assessment role in industry (with Unilever). I was excited by the prospect of applying microbiological risk assessment in an area where it wasn't being widely practised and seeing more immediate results; for example, in getting new products on the shelf and quick decisions on the risks from out-of-specification products in the marketplace. During my time with the company we have utilised risk assessment approaches in a diverse range of product and process innovations, often with a timeline of months as opposed to years, with the work being tested ultimately in the market. While data can (relatively easily) be generated to fill gaps, you never have perfect data and there is often a real discussion around the uncertainties and acceptable levels of risk with teams responsible for product launch. While at Unilever I have had the opportunity to present at conferences on risk assessment, train others, further the science through collaboration with the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI-Europe), and advise the UK Food Standards Agency in this area as a member of the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF).

I have fulfilled several roles during my 10 years with the company. I have worked with business groups early in their innovation plans to identify and set up projects to address their wider safety needs (covering disciplines such as toxicology, physical hazards and allergy, in addition to microbiology). Most recently, I have been leading the microbiological safety team, supporting the evolution of their capability to include non-food risk assessment in more complex environments (for example, biofilms), as well as to use molecular tools, techniques and data in assessments.

Breaking my own rule!

With this change process now well under way, I find myself being called back to a role closer to my core animal/public health interests, and will be leaving the company early this year to focus on this. So, on the edge of a potentially more significant change I could find myself breaking my own ‘rule’ of only changing one thing at a time. But don't worry, I've done the risk assessment …

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