Food deserves better scrutiny

New Zealand's food manufacturers and sellers operate under regulations that are 30 years old and in need of an overhaul.

If passed into law, the Food Bill would replace the existing Food Act 1981 and introduce some fundamental changes to improve New Zealand's domestic food regulation.

It would clearly re-state and reform the law regarding the safety and suitability of the food produced, handled, and sold by more than 35,000 food businesses and a further 200,000 part-time food traders.

The current prescriptive "rules and inspection" system would be replaced by one that would require food businesses to take greater responsibility for their product safety, tailoring their food safety procedures to the actual level of risk they manage.

The draft Food Bill has been through public consultation over the past four years and was passed by Parliament's primary production select committee in mid-2011 with cross-party support. It is due to go before Parliament for a vote sometime this year. It is not, as some commentators suggest, being rushed through during this summer holiday period.

If it becomes law, the bill will require those involved in the commercial trade of food to operate under one of three regulatory systems, depending on the level of food safety risk involved.

This means that a high-risk business, such as a restaurant or a baby food manufacturer, would need to meet more robust requirements and operate under a regulated food control plan.

Businesses categorised as presenting a medium risk, such as bakeries or pre-packaged food manufacturers, would be regulated under national programmes, which would take a more flexible approach.

Those in the lowest risk category – including small traders such as those running roadside stalls or selling their own horticultural produce at markets, charity sausage sizzles and bake sales – would receive free food handler guidance information, and incur no extra costs.

Once passed, the legislation will be supported by regulations to explain specific requirements for businesses, and the Government will also provide information to help people understand how the new act affects them.

It is important to point out that no-one will come under the scope of the legislation unless they are selling or trading food for profit – this is in contrast to the misinformation being spread by an anonymous internet campaign.

The bill in no way affects people's right to grow food and to then exchange, sell or trade it. Food grown at home for personal or family consumption or given away to friends is excluded from the bill.

Those behind the online petition opposing the bill claim it will seriously impede initiatives like community gardens, food co-ops, heritage seed banks, farmers' markets and roadside fruit and vegetable stalls. This is nonsense.

At most, people involved in such activity, where it presents a low risk, will be provided with information.

Events such as sausage sizzles, home bake sales, and other fundraising events will still occur as they always have. The bill is intended to protect, not harm such events, as the bill's critics would have us believe.

Bartering of food is currently included in the Food Act 1981. The proposed bill simply clarifies that those bartering with food, as part of a food business, must ensure it is safe and suitable.

Many small-scale bartering activities will only be subject to food handler guidance – for example, those bartering home-grown produce for goods and services. However, larger scale bartering of food exists and it is appropriate that those enterprises are subjected to the same risk-based measures as those selling their food products in a more conventional manner.

Under the proposed legislation, there are wide definitions of "food" and "trade". This broad-brush approach was taken to prevent the creation of legal loopholes that could be taken advantage of by businesses. Because of this, some food products or activities were captured in the bill unintentionally, including food seeds for propagation. Once I became aware of this, I asked officials to draft an amendment to ensure these products are not captured by the bill.

With these broad definitions, and to provide flexibility, the MAF director-general will have the ability to make exemptions on a case-by-case basis.

Opponents of the draft legislation have also suggested that the bill's enforcement provisions are drastic – with some suggesting that armed food safety officers would enter premises without a warrant. Again, this is nonsense.

Improvement notices are the likely main enforcement provision that will be used, giving operators the chance to correct minor non-compliances and prevent further action. In the event that serious offences are committed, the bill provides the opportunity for meaningful fines and penalties to be imposed by the courts. The bill does not provide for food safety officers to be armed.

It is intended to modernise and enhance our domestic food safety regime, not over-regulate it.

Kate Wilkinson is the Food Safety Minister

Wellington