Several alarmed readers have written to alarm me.
"Joe," they write, "we want to alarm you because you are a leading back-garden producer of horticultural material. [Thank you. Have you seen the size of my strawberries? They're two to a wheelbarrow.] What we want to alarm you about is the proposed Food Bill. The government is trying to sneak it through while everyone's drunk over Christmas. They must be stopped.
"If the bill becomes law, it will make it difficult for anyone to trade in food unless they're (a) a supermarket, (b) a multinational corporation whose CEO has a face like a punctured football or (c) a supermarket owned by a multinational corporation whose CEO has a face like a punctured football.
"You, Joe, have a face like a punctured football. But in all other regards you fail to meet the criteria so you will be breaking the law if you continue to pay your mechanically-gifted neighbour for fixing your chainsaw with a wheelbarrow of giant strawberries. This matter is so urgent Joe that we're not even going to rewrite that last sentence to remove the amusing ambiguity. [As it happens my neighbour is so mechanically gifted that he could fix a chainsaw with a wheelbarrow of giant strawberries.]
"The proposed new law will be enforced by Food Safety Officers with such powers of entry and seizure that we are tempted by the words sweeping and/or draconian. [Well done for resisting temptation. But boo hiss for succumbing to and/or.] Should these officers hear of anyone producing strawberries for barter or gain - and they could hardly fail to notice yours which stand out on the brown Lyttelton hillside like beacons to warn shipping [thank you once more] - they will descend without warrant or warning. You will recognise them by their highly polished thigh-length boots and their tendency when marching to kick their legs straight out in front of them.
"Under the proposed bill all manner of activities that are as old as mankind will become subject to intrusive regulation. Owners of market stalls selling produce will become so burdened by the requirements of compliance that they will wilt like calceolarias under the current watering restrictions and give up. (By the way, how is it that you keep producing such gargantuan berries? We hope you're not behaving like the Christchurch City Council and defying the rules.) [Certainly not. But like the council, whose omniscience and wisdom I salute with every available finger, I have suffered a couple of computer programming malfunctions.]
"Under the proposed legislation, Joe, seeds and seedlings will become controlled substances. So if you were, hypothetically, to pot up a few cuttings from your fraises gigantesques, as no one has ever been heard to call them in Akaroa, and take them to market, you would be bunged into clink by the Food Police who would then don masks and white disposable overalls in order to deal with your unlicensed and therefore hazardous organic material.
"Do you think we're alarmist, Joe? Well, don't take our word for it. You can read all about it for yourself. But we have to act quickly. If you wait till everyone sobers up in mid-January it will be too late.
They then appended several links to websites, all of which ended .govt.nz. It's a suffix that guarantees a good read. I rubbed my hands together, clicked on a link and settled in to enjoy an afternoon of government legal speak.
When I woke up it was dark. And the column is due in an hour, so I have not read the whole of the proposed legislation. Indeed I've read only a couple of prefatory sentences. But I believe I've read enough.
First, the main purpose of the bill is to "improve the interface of regulatory processes across food sectors". If language like that doesn't shrivel your innards, then we have different innards.
And second, according to Hon Kate Wilkinson, Minister for Food Safety (oh the glory) there "remains a significant incidence of food-borne illness in New Zealand and more can be done to protect consumers".
Now listen here, Hon. For one thing don't ever call me a consumer. And for another, stop pretending to protect me. Food producers don't want to poison me and this legislation wouldn't stop them if they did. Indeed, I'm willing to bet a wheelbarrow of strawberries that it wouldn't reduce the incidence of food-borne illness one jot. Instead it would just bugger people about, yet again, in the name of health and safety.
I may be wrong, of course. I know nothing. So, readers, don't take my word for it. Just go to www.foodsafety.govt.nz. to decide for yourselves. And take a pillow.
- The Press