Nothing to fear from Food Bill

Kate Wilkinson
Kate Wilkinson

The Government's proposed Food Bill sets out to replace existing outdated food safety regulations, simplify processes and ultimately ensure that the food people buy is safe to eat.

In 2010, food-borne illness resulted in an estimated $162 million loss to the New Zealand economy. The Food Bill sets out to reduce this cost.

An internet campaign spreading misinformation from an anonymously backed website has raised doubt around its scope and has generated community concern.

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 changes to improve New Zealand's domestic food regulation.

It would clearly restate and reform the law regarding the safety and suitability of the food produced, handled and sold by more than 35,000 food businesses in New Zealand 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 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 this year. It is not 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.

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 generic and 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 Food Bill unless they are selling or trading food for profit. This is in contrast to the misinformation being spread by the 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 current online petition opposing the bill claim it will seriously impede initiatives like community gardens, food co-operatives, heritage seed banks, farmers' markets and roadside fruit and vegetable stalls. This is nonsense.

At most, people involved in this type of food-sharing or trading activity, where it presents a low risk, will simply be provided with information.

Charitable and community events such as sausage sizzles, home-baking sales and other fundraising events will still occur as they always have. These are an important part of our Kiwi lifestyle that the proposed bill is intended to protect, not harm.

Bartering of food is included in the existing 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 be subject only 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.

To provide flexibility in the process, the Director-General of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry will be provided with the ability to make exemptions on a case-by-case basis.

Opponents of the draft legislation have suggested 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. It does not provide for food safety officers to be armed.

» Kate Wilkinson is the Minister for Food Safety