After a long journey through the parliamentary process, the Food Bill 2010 has unanimously passed its third reading. The focus of the new Food Act is on modernising and reforming New Zealand food law to implement a flexible, cost effective and risk-based approach to food safety and management. The Act recognises that different businesses and industries will have different levels of risk depending on the nature of the food they deal with and the activities they undertake. The new Food Act allows for the compliance measures businesses follow to be tailored accordingly.
The one-size-fits all approach under the Food Act 1981 has not worked effectively for some time, and businesses and local authorities have been operating under ad hoc and temporary measures waiting for comprehensive legislation to be introduced that allows for a more tailored and flexible approach to risk management and food safety. Currently more than 6,000 businesses are operating under transitional risk based programmes including Food Control Plans and Food Safety Programmes. The new legislation will make programmes such as these mandatory after the transition period.
The focus of the Act is on improving:
knowledge and food handling practices;
monitoring and data collection; and
- enforcement of food safety laws and regulations.
The primary duty of all persons handling food will be to make sure that it is safe and suitable. Good food handling practices will be mandatory for all medium and high risk businesses. Low risk organisations and activities will have information made available to them regarding safe food handling practices, and these lower risk organisations may comply with higher standards followed by other organisations if they choose to do so.
The Ministry for Primary Industries will maintain a central register of businesses operating under Food Control Plans and National Programmes. The compliance measures each business must follow will depend upon the risk level of that particular business or industry. Much of the detail of what these programmes and plans will involve will be determined through regulations, so it is important that businesses take an active role in determining what level of regulation is appropriate for their industry, and make sure this is communicated to Government when public consultation on these regulations occurs.
The Act will considerably strengthen the Government’s enforcement powers. Penalties for breaching the Act have been increased to up to $100,000 for individuals and five years imprisonment, and $500,000 for organisations. Food safety officers will be given greater powers to inspect and search food businesses and dwellings where food is prepared, and will be able to issue infringement notices, which are an intermediate measure between warning letters and court action. Enforcement and compliance checks are also likely to be risk-based, with lower risk businesses being checked less frequently than higher risk organisations. It has also been suggested that if a business is shown to be compliant when it is checked, it will be checked less often in the future than a business would be where deficiencies are found. Importantly, it will now be the actual food handling practices that are assessed, rather than just the premises where food is stored and handled.
Initial concerns regarding the legislation from some sectors have been addressed by amendments from the Select Committee and the Minister. The amendments made it clear that seeds for propagation were not covered under the Act, food handler guidance programmes for low risk businesses were made voluntary, a ‘Good Samaritan clause’ was included for businesses that donate food in good faith, and gifting and donating food to others was expressly permitted in the version of the Bill that was passed.
Overall, the Food Act 2014 represents a major (and long overdue) step forward in New Zealand’s food law, and should allow for a more tailored, flexible and cost effective approach to food safety in the future. To make the most of the new legislation, businesses should begin thinking about the level of food safety regulation that will be most appropriate for the activities and industry they are involved in, so that they can take a pro-active role in assisting with the development of regulations under the Act once consultation begins.