Is bellyaching over Food Bill valid?

CHARLES ANDERSON
Last updated 11:06 15/01/2012
Biddy Fraser-Davies
KEVEIN STENT/Fairfax NZ
COMPLIANCE COSTLY: Cheese maker Biddy Fraser-Davies.

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No conspiracy exists, Brendan Hoare says, but trawling through social media and news websites, one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

According to some, the legislation known as the Food Bill is to be rushed through Parliament under urgency during the holidays. It isn't.

They say those who keep a seven-day supply of food at home could be labelled a "food terrorist". They won't be.

And one person who contacted the Star-Times has linked the Food Bill to Nazi Germany (it's a long story, Google "Codex Alimentarius Nazi").

Hoare, who has worked as an organic agriculturalist and educator for nearly 30 years, says there is no conspiracy; the bill just is a reflection of its writers - people "disconnected, ill-informed and poorly advised".

The bill replaces 30-year-old legislation and sets up a new structure for food safety, but small producers are worried compliance costs could ruin them, while community gardeners believe it will prevent them from operating.

An online petition against the bill has gathered nearly 30,000 signatures.

Hoare is part of an organic farming collective on Auckland's west coast that includes the sharing of resources between animal farmers, a beekeeper, and fruit and vegetable farmers. "Theoretically now, that is under the microscope. It's ridiculous. It's not done out of design. It's done out of ignorance."

He said the bill as it might apply to operations such as his own would be impossible to enforce, and there would likely be a revolt against it. "People have written it not understanding that there is a counter-culture that doesn't want it. They are speaking different languages."

The community-garden boom throughout the country showed New Zealanders were looking at other ways of living, and the bill did not seem to embrace that.

"People want a different story."

Biddy Fraser-Davies started her artisan cheese operation out of Tararua eight years ago. At that time, she paid only $100 to her local council for food safety compliance. Under a new compliance law, that increased to nearly $5500.

"When you only get a turnover of $20,000, that is just ludicrous."

The pensioner said the Government should be encouraging businesses like hers, not making it more difficult.

While she hoped the new legislation would be more reasonable, the Food Bill still reflected the attitudes of bureaucrats who knew nothing of small food operations.

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"If a city person knows nothing about how farms or milking parlours are arranged, how can you possibly get a handle on the regulation?"

The 360-page document has flown under the radar from its initial submission phase more than a year ago. Then, it attracted only a handful of submissions from small business operators, and political parties largely supported it. Now, with a public backlash, both the Greens and Labour are stepping back.

Labour primary industries spokesman Damien O'Connor said his party would not be giving its support to the bill unless several areas were clarified, including those affecting small growers.

"We do not want to see New Zealand end up with some unwieldy piece of legislation that confuses the retailers and those working in this area, particularly those working in volunteer or community settings."

Green MP Steffan Browning said he would push for more changes to excuse small traders from having to adhere to excessive bureaucracy.

Minister for Food Safety Kate Wilkinson says opponents of the Government's draft bill are scaremongering about its impacts.

"Much of what they claim is untrue and causing many people unnecessary concern," she says.

"The bill is designed to simplify 30-year-old food safety regulations and ultimately aims to reduce our high level of food-borne illness and corresponding economic cost.

"It's estimated that food-borne illness caused a $162 million loss to the New Zealand economy in 2010."

WHAT IS THE FOOD BILL?

The Food Bill updates and modernises the Food Act 1981, with a goal to ensure that the food people buy is safe to eat.

Minister for Food Safety Kate Wilkinson says the bill focuses on food for sale and profit, not the trade of home-grown food between neighbours or within a community.

Some activities around the food industry, such as the production of food seeds, were unintentionally captured by the bill, but there is the ability to exempt them.

Fears have been raised that the act would stop neighbours and communities from sharing food, but Wilkinson says that tradition would not be affected. Instead, information on the safe preparation of food, provided as "food handler guidance" tips and advice, would be made available, to ensure food is safe to eat.

Fundraising events can continue as they always have, with organisers of such activities being provided with access to "food handler guidance" tips.

- Sunday Star Times

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