'Scary' food safety reforms attacked

By Derek Cheng

Food Bill gives inspectors sweeping powers while small traders fear compliance costs. Photo / Supplied
Food Bill gives inspectors sweeping powers while small traders fear compliance costs. Photo / Supplied

A bill bringing sweeping reform to food safety standards is being criticised for giving food safety officers excessive power and threatening the viability of small-scale food sellers and backyard community food swaps.

The bill, which is almost certain to become law with the support of most political parties, would replace 30-year-old legislation, which falls short of properly protecting consumers, and create a new framework for food safety.

But small operators fear that new compliance costs could push them under, while others have concerns about the bill's effects on community food swaps and growers who sell small amounts to retailers.

An online petition, which says the bill impedes the basic right to share food, has gathered almost 24,000 signatures.

There is also concern over the powers of food safety officers, who could search premises without a warrant in some circumstances and use any force necessary to enter and search, while being immune from civil or criminal liability.

While the Government has dismissed some criticism, Food Safety Minister Kate Wilkinson is seeking advice on how to ensure the bill would not affect the current rules on food swaps and selling and exchanging seeds.

The new safety framework is expected to be simpler. At the top end, businesses such as restaurants would need a rigid food plan, while places considered less risky, such as bakeries, would have to comply with a more flexible national programme.

Other traders of food - including sausage sizzles for charity, community vegetable gardens, or giving home-grown tomatoes to the neighbours or flatmates - would be given guidance on handling food and be exempt from a programme.

The exemption would also apply where the producer was selling directly to the consumer, which often happens at local and farmers' markets.

But there is doubt over whether those involved in a community food swap would have to apply to be exempt from having a national programme.

Green Party primary production spokesman Steffan Browning said the bill should regulate bartering, but the Greens would push for exemptions for small-scale traders to be written into
it.

"A threshold needs to be set at the value of product being transferred. If it's over the back fence, then clearly the Food Bill should be light years away from that transaction.

"It might be $50,000, it might be $10,000, but something should be set ... It is draconian if it gets right down to community food sharing and swapping and they have to get exemptions."

Under the bill, exemptions are at the discretion of the chief executive of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

Mr Browning also wanted immunity for food safety officers to be scrapped.

"They need to be able to go in and deal with the situation, but their powers need tightening, and immunity is very scary."

He said public misinformation about the bill was unhelpful, including the claim that it would be passed into law during the summer break; the House does not sit again until February 7, and the bill has to pass two readings before it can become law.

The Government has promised to modify the bill to ensure that people will still be able to sell or exchange seeds without needing to comply with the legislation. At present the definition of "food" in the bill includes seeds.

The bill also increases the penalties for selling unsafe food from the present maximum of a $5000 fine for an individual to up to two years' imprisonment and a $100,000 fine.

Ms Wilkinson also wants to exempt organic farm workers who might receive food in exchange for accommodation.

THE FOOD BILL

What is it?
A bill would create a new framework for ensuring food safety and replace the 30-year-old legislation that is inadequate for protecting consumers. Food-borne illnesses cost the country about $80 million a year.

The bill would also ensure imported food is at least as safe as domestically produced food.

What's the fuss?
The legislation as it is worded would capture selling/exchanging seeds and WWOOFing (organic farming where food is often exchanged for labour). There is doubt over how the bill would affect food exchanges including community vegetable gardens.

Now what?
The bill has been sitting idle on the Order Paper for over a year. It is awaiting its second reading and is likely to pass this year with broad support, including from National and Labour.

- NZ Herald

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