Information vacuums offer fertile territory for alarmists. The more that issues are left unanswered, the more traction they stand to gain. So it is with the Food Bill, a piece of legislation that has sat idle on Parliament's Order Paper for more than a year, attracting little controversy and enjoying broad cross-party support. Suddenly, critics whose view owes more to speculation than substance have made it a matter of contention. An online petition claiming the bill impedes the basic right to share food has attracted more than 25,000 signatures. All this has been possible because the Government has failed to provide an unequivocal statement that would put the matter to rest.
The Food Bill, which introduces a regulatory regime for food makers and suppliers, has been a long time in the making. Its genesis dates back the best part of a decade to when New Zealand was found to have the highest rate of food poisoning among developed countries. One food safety scientist dubbed it the campylobacter and salmonella capital of the world. Clearly, 30 years of policing food safety largely through inspection had not proved successful, especially in the case of restaurants, cafes and takeaway bars. In 2010, 88 per cent of food poisoning cases emanated from that source.
The Food Bill seeks to protect consumers better by creating four regulatory levels of safety based on relative risk, with restaurants at the top end, and by putting responsibility for safety squarely on the person in charge of a food operation. Penalties for selling unsafe food are increased from a maximum $5000 fine for an individual to up to two years' imprisonment and a $100,000 fine. Implicit in the Government's approach is also a desire to minimise compliance costs. As such, and given the origin of the vast majority of food poisoning cases, it seems clear there is no intention for the legislation to capture the likes of home-grown community vegetable sharing and selling and exchanging seeds.
But the view that such activities and those of other small-scale food traders will soon be trapped in costly red tape has been allowed to fester. The Food Safety Minister, Kate Wilkinson, has said there is nothing to fear. "The bill will in no way stop the proud Kiwi tradition of growing and swapping vegies with friends and neighbours. It's focused on those selling food for profit," she says. But doubts remain over whether some low-risk groups, including those who trade food such as jams and baking, would need to be exempted from registering with a national safety plan.
Ms Wilkinson has offered fuel to those who fear the worst by declining to say whether the bill needed amendments to ensure some of these groups would not have to clear compliance hurdles. Given the Government's obvious intent, it would have been far more judicious to make it absolutely clear that if changes were necessary, they would be made. As it is, she has also offered ammunition to political opponents. Picking up the cudgel have been the Greens who once said the bill should include more rigorous rules but now want exemptions for small-scale traders to be written into it.
The Labour Party's support for the legislation also appears to be wavering. It, too, wants matters clarified, notably those affecting small growers. Labour's new-found doubts will, in turn, offer sustenance to those who take a stridently alarmist view. Clearly, no political party, least of all National, wants to see the activities of small-scale food traders rendered impractical by unnecessary red tape. Ms Wilkinson needs to say, clearly and concisely, that this will not happen. Then the overdue reform of food safety standards can proceed with broad and warranted support.