Fans lose daily fix of hemp milk
Unapproved hemp food products have been hastily removed from store shelves after it was revealed they had not been cleared for human consumption.
Unwitting consumers have been pouring the unapproved milk substitute on their cereal and into their coffees, and mixing the protein powder into smoothies and baking, for more than a year.
The Ministry for Primary Industries is investigating after the Sunday Star-Times discovered unapproved products including hemp-seed milk and protein powder for sale in New Zealand shops.
Customs allowed the milk to be imported, saying it was not responsible for food safety issues.
Hemp seed comes from the same plant as marijuana - cannabis sativa. Despite containing extremely low levels of marijuana's psychoactive substance, THC, hemp is still classed as a drug and cannot be sold for human consumption.
The plant can be used as a material, and the oil squeezed from hemp seed can be legally consumed, but not the milk.
The products had been brought into the country by a number of importers, including Living Foods Lifestyle New Zealand. In Wellington, it was sold at Commonsense Organics stores.
Confusion about the process for approving new food seems to be behind the introduction of the products after Food Safety Australia New Zealand issued an "approval report" for hemp in November 2012. The report is only the first step in a larger approval process.
The trans-Tasman agency began assessing hemp for human consumption after an Australian hemp advocate's application in 2009 but several importers took the "approval report" as a green light to sell items.
Living Foods brought in hemp-seed products, including protein powder. The shipments were declared to and cleared by Customs, company director Michele La Chante said. The company declined to comment further when contacted for this article.
One hemp milk customer is Aeroshop cafe in the Wellington suburb of Mt Cook. Owner Sod Oscarfono remains a huge fan of hemp, which he considers healthier, tastier, more economically viable and better for the environment than soy milk.
"Straight up, if we could get our hands on hemp milk, we'd still be selling it." Its removal had greatly affected his business, with many coffee lovers travelling to Aeroshop specifically for the milk substitute, he said. He would now campaign to see the milk made legal.
"People have been really upset about it and think it's just ridiculous, and now I'm really unsatisfied with my morning coffee."
For a year, Ceres Organics, an Auckland health food store and country-wide supplier, sold Pacific Foods plain and flavoured hemp milks imported from the United States, as well as the approved hemp-seed oil.
Ceres compliance manager Lee Winklemann said hemp milk had since been removed from sale, after being approached by Sunday Star-Times.
It had incorrectly believed processed hemp was allowed to be sold, she said.
"If you can sell hemp oil in New Zealand . . . I can't understand why, if you get it tested, you can't sell hemp milk. If you take out all emotion, it's a very, very healthy product."
Both hemp protein powder and milk was sold at Commonsense Organics stores around Wellington. Managing director Marion Wood said hemp seed products would also be removed from shop shelves until the issue had been clarified.
"We have been stocking hemp-seed products in the genuine belief that the approval had gone through, and because hemp seed is a good source of food."
Selling, though not consuming, hemp foods breaches the Food Act, which is policed by the Ministry for Primary Industries.
Individuals face a fine of $3000 or up to $5000 if a court finds they knew they were committing an offence. Businesses face fines of up to $20,000.
Ministry food manager Glen Neal said it would investigate claims that hemp foods were being sold. "The FSANZ process regarding the sale of hemp food products is not completed yet, so it is not possible to sell any parts of the hemp seed, other than hemp seed oil, in New Zealand."
Food Safety Minister Nikki Kaye said the ministry had advised her it was looking into claims that hemp foods were being wrongly sold.
Customs officers ensure the country's laws were enforced at the border, including when items such as hemp were imported.
But a Customs spokeswoman said this was a food safety issue relating to sale and supply in New Zealand, not importation. Therefore, the policing of the hemp food restrictions was for the Ministry of Primary Industries to enforce.
MARIJUANA v HEMP
Marijuana commonly contains THC levels of between 50,000 and 300,000 parts per million (5-30 per cent) whereas hemp foodstuffs often have less than 0.02 per cent of the psychoactive chemical.
The concentration can, however, vary from product to product.
Hemp seed products are legal in Canada, the US and Europe.
Sunday Star Times