Kate Wilkinson: New bill cuts red tape for safe food

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Contrary to common belief, home-grown produce sold at farmers' markets would not attract any compliance costs, says the minister. Photo / APN
Contrary to common belief, home-grown produce sold at farmers' markets would not attract any compliance costs, says the minister. Photo / APN

New regulations would reduce existing compliance costs while guarding health, writes Kate Wilkinson, Food Safety Minister.

The Food Bill has attracted a lot of attention of late, some of it misinformed.

I was surprised to see a number of factual errors in former Green MP Sue Kedgley's opinion piece - especially given that she was fully consulted before the Food Bill was introduced, voted in favour of it at first reading, and sat on the Select Committee that reported it back to Parliament.

Ms Kedgely gives the example of a Waiheke-based friend who occasionally sells their extra home-grown produce to the local fruit and vegetable shop. She says the friend, and hundreds of others in the same situation, would stop this activity because of Food Bill regulations.

In fact, selling home-grown fruits and vegetables is already regulated under the current Food Act 1981.It requires anyone who sells fruits or vegetables, whether at a farmers' market or to a store or restaurant, to operate under strict food hygiene regulations.

This means they have to be registered with the local council, have suitable premises and be inspected annually.

The Food Bill actually lowers compliance costs. Those selling direct to the public, say at farmers' markets or roadside stalls, will not face any costs at all.

Someone who sells to a store or restaurant will need to register, at an expected cost of around $50 to $100, and they will have to cover the cost of a one-off check to make sure their processes are safe.

This is about ensuring the food can be traced back to the producer and is safe to eat. The public deserves that certainty.

The cost of compliance, especially for very small businesses, was raised when the bill was before the Select Committee. Setting thresholds under which businesses could be exempt was considered but it was deemed too difficult to set a level that was fair to everyone.

A flexible approach was preferred to protect small businesses by enabling MAF to grant exemptions. This could be on a case-by-case basis or for a whole sector if necessary.

Likewise, the Food Bill allows an automatic exemption (up to 20 times a year) for fundraising events. This applies to sausage sizzles or cake stalls to raise money for the local sports club - not just "registered charities".

Admittedly the Greens did want Country of Origin labelling included but it was left out of the bill as it is not to be a food safety issue, per se, but one of consumer choice.

When a label states that the food product is made from "local and imported ingredients" it does not reassure the purchaser that the food is safe. Some would say that such a label is meaningless.

All food for sale in New Zealand has to be safe and suitable for consumption by law.

We do random testing of food batches that enter the country and where there are high risk foods that warrant more attention, they get it. Food safety standards are set by international agreements between New Zealand and our trading partners.

Also, the Food Bill is not about the ethics of production systems such as factory farmed chicken (which are legitimate concerns) - it's about ensuring hygiene systems are in place and are functioning properly.

In closing, I would like to reiterate that the Food Bill does not affect people growing or making food for their own consumption, or giving it away or swapping it with friends or neighbours.

The bill only covers food that is sold, or traded, for commercial purposes.

It is designed to be flexible, to promote innovation and minimise red tape and bureaucracy for producers while making sure food that the public buys is safe to eat.

- NZ Herald

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