The Ministry of Health has raised concerns that two years of work proposing changes to the Food Act had focused too much on business operations and not enough on food safety issues.

An email from an official at the ministry to the Food Safety Authority in June, released under the Official Information Act this week, has revealed Ministry of Health fears that the Food Bill makes no mention of how any of the proposed changes would improve public health protection.

"This is a significant gap in the paper," the memo reads.

"The [Cabinet] paper makes no mention of the fundamental purpose of food safety legislation (ie, to protect human health), no discussion of the extent of foodbourne [sic] illnesses in NZ and no discussion of whether the proposed changes are good, bad or neutral for human health."

The Food Safety Minister, Kate Wilkinson, yesterday defended the bill:

"We're confident the new bill will improve food safety and provide greater business certainty," she said.

"Both are extremely important issues and have received close attention."

But Green MP Sue Kedgley said the bill did not go far enough.

"What is the point of reviewing a whole Food Act if you're not even looking at what impact it's going to have on human health or on food safety?

"What actually concerns me is that it seems to be principally focused on reducing compliance costs for business and not looking at the whole issue of food safety at all."

Ms Kedgley said she would have liked to see more rigorous rules on the importation of food. Almost $4 billion of food was imported from 145 countries last year and tougher rules were needed because some countries had slack food safety standards compared with New Zealand.

The Green Party would be following up its concerns, she said.

The Hospitality Association has welcomed the changes, saying they offer more consistent guidelines than current regulations which vary from each territorial authority.

Ministry of Health group manager population health protection Graeme Gillespie said the comments in the email were in relation to the content of the draft Cabinet paper about the bill.

"The points raised in the email were intended to improve the quality of advice to Cabinet by ensuring the effects on food safety were more explicit," he said.

"The email identifies that these are addressed in the review report but have not been brought forward into the Cabinet paper. The Ministry of Health does not have any concerns about the ability of the proposed Food Bill to ensure food safety."

PASSAGE INTO LAW

* The Food Bill has been written over the past two years to amend the outdated Food Act 1981.

* Amendments include a national restaurant grading system and a shift in responsibility from local government compliance officers to business owners and operators.

* The Food Bill is expected to be introduced to Parliament within the next year and be in place by late 2010 or early 2011.Two-year review 'focused too much on reducing operating costs for businesses'