Overhaul of act puts onus on food outlets to ensure safety

Restaurant and takeaway-shop owners will have to take greater responsibility for preparing and selling safe food under proposed Government changes.

However, the Green Party fears the new plans aim to streamline business costs, rather than protect the public.

Food Safety Minister Kate Wilkinson announced plans yesterday that would place the onus on food providers to ensure food was prepared hygienically.

Recommendations in the overhaul of the Food Act include a move from an inspection-based system to one based on risk assessment, as judged by the food provider.

They also include a national grading system for restaurants, in which certificates will be on public display.

School fundraisers, sausage sizzles and church fairs offering snacks will not need to be registered. However, operators will be given information on safe food practices and basic hygiene.

New Zealand's food industry employs more than 20 per cent of working Kiwis and has turnover of about $22 billion a year.

A spokesman for Wilkinson said the national restaurant grading would "simply mean councils all operate from the same guidelines when inspecting a food outlet".

Good performers under new food-safety plans would be audited less often, saving them money. The current system encouraged operators to wait until an inspector told them what they were doing wrong.

"The idea is that an operator has a plan in place to manage food safety and the responsibility to show the auditor how they keep food safe rather than an inspector looking for problems."

New penalties for breaching the rules would depend on the severity of the infringement.

The planned changes would not affect the structure of the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA). The authority has been criticised for having to protect and promote public health and safety, and to facilitate market access for New Zealand food products dual roles that could lead to a conflict of interest.

Green Party food safety spokeswoman Sue Kedgley said she doubted the changes were being made with consumers in mind. "Our concern is it is basically being driven by trying to reduce compliance costs for the food industry, rather than based on strengthening consumer protection.

"I notice that in the press release she [Wilkinson] talks about how the current system doesn't do enough to protect consumers and reduce food-borne illness, but when you look at the Cabinet paper it says no such thing it says the whole thing is designed to `provide business certainty and to further reduce compliance costs'."If the Government is genuinely concerned with responding to the concerns of consumers, we need to change the mandate of the NZFSA so it is exclusively focused on providing, as most agencies overseas are, consumer protection and public health."

However, Kedgley welcomed tougher rules for imported food. "We desperately need that. We are testing a pitiful 0.25 per cent of imported goods and there is a vast amount of imported food coming into New Zealand, including from countries with a poor safety record."

Changes proposed in the Government's food bill include:

Introducing a national restaurant grading system.

Enhancing rules for food imports.

Shifting responsibility for food safety from the government to food business operators.

Replacing the Food Hygiene Regulations 1974 with "outcome-based" regulations.

Tougher penalties for breaking rules.CHANGES ARE BEING MADE BECAUSE OF:A lack of clarity in the roles of the regulators, the New Zealand Food Safety Authority and city and district councils.

Duplications and gaps in food laws.

A lack of understanding of good hygienic practice.

Absence of a risk-based approach to food safety.

The Press