Every day our restaurants and food service outlets feed 1.5 million people.
Food safety is an integral part of this experience. It's a competitive advantage and an absolute necessity for one of the country's cornerstone industries; it's a customer's expectation and right to buy food, enjoy it and live to tell the tale.
But the hospitality business is about to get a shake up by way of a long-awaited Food Bill that will focus on food safety. The intent of the bill is to move food regulation in line with other developed countries, by shifting from an inspection-based system to a risk-based approach.
Whereas the present system involves an environmental health officer calling unannounced and touring the premises, the new operations will involve proprietor records, premise inspection and interviews with staff.
The Restaurant Association of New Zealand represents a select group of hospitality businesses and has been involved in consultation and pilot-testing of this new programme.
Most association members support the new bill.
Members who participated in trials reported that they liked having control and accountability of their business back in their hands.
Simple documentation procedures, one handy manual covering all food safety aspects and clear guidelines for staff were also useful. In many cases the proposed changes were less onerous than the current programmes.
So how is take-up of the new safety standards going? Today there are 1200 restaurants, cafes and food service and catering outlets registered for the VIP programme and 500 are in the process of changing to the new system.
Fantastic right? Wrong. With less than 12 months until transition, more than 90 per cent of the country's eateries haven't registered. That's around 13,500 businesses.
A survey in April that confirmed the association's worst fears: many business operators will wait until the last minute to make changes.
Worse still, many are not aware the changes are coming, and even those who were aware that the review was taking place, more than 55 per cent had little knowledge of the impact that this would have on their businesses in less than a year.
And despite knowing that there is proposed change, 60 per cent of those surveyed have made little or no preparation.
The biggest hurdle as we have seen in our survey results is awareness. There are many businesses that simply do not know they need to make changes.
Two other major issues include the escalation of compliance costs to business and the ability of local authorities to carry out fundamental requirements of the new Food Control Plans. A few suggestions might make a big difference in keeping this cornerstone industry running smoothly:
* The association recommends that new fees involved with the Food Bill should be prescribed as part of a fees schedule to ensure a consistent approach across the country. Legislation needs to reflect this as there seems to be a lack of understanding around this concept amongst some territorial bodies.
* The NZ Food Safety Authority has always maintained during its consultation that "the Food Bill aims to provide an efficient, effective and risk-based food regulatory regime that manages food safety and suitability issues, improves business certainty and minimises compliance costs for business".
While the authority never intended to set fees it did suggest that it would provide guidance for verifiers and Territorial Authorities , around what these fees should be.
* The association believes that the bill give clear guidelines or limits for registration and verification fees. We suspect high-priced consultants will be brought in by local authorities to assist with a backlog of verification work (this work involves assessing how well business food safety plans comply with the new guidelines).
The charges passed on to business could be far in excess of what is being paid; and in excess of the ranges outlined by NZFSA.
The cost of verification for standard food control plans will be in the rage of $300-$800 a year. We are already seeing councils raise fees, with the price ranges sitting between $170-$2000 depending on the business.
* The association recommends that the select committee working on the bill considers extending the first year transition of high-risk businesses from 12 months to 24, to ensure that under-resourced councils will be able to properly assist with implementation.
Legislation needs to reflect reality and the lack of understanding. We need to be ready for a last minute crunch on resources and local authorities as proprietors rush to meet deadlines, get their staff up to speed, manage any associated costs and implement the changes.
* Steve Mackenzie is the chief executive of the Restaurant Association of New Zealand.