NZ govt works to minimize compliance overlap with proposed food bill -

NZ govt works to minimize compliance overlap with proposed food bill

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NZ govt works to minimize compliance overlap with proposed food bill

The New Zealand government hopes to relieve doubt among producers who believe a proposed food safety bill will discourage small growers and raise compliance costs.

Opponents of New Zealand’s Food Bill have taken issue with increased costs on top of expenses already paid to third-party quality assurers, like the New Zealand Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) program.

Cottage food growers also expressed concern over increases in food safety penalties and new regulations required even of small-scale, farmers’ market operations.

But Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) spokesperson Keri Iti tells the goal of the bill is to lower compliance costs.

"We have to make sure we don’t end up creating duplication where they have to jump the same hoop several times. There is work underway because we know those agreements exist," says Iti.

Horticulture New Zealand has been working with MAF to determine how the process for recognizing programs like New Zealand GAP will work.

Horticulture New Zealand spokesperson Leigh Catley says the legislation allows the MAF Chief Executive to approve recognized schemes so there is not another level of compliance.

"If you’re already part of New Zealand GAP, then there wouldn’t be additional requirements from the Food Bill,” she says. “But that depends on the approval being given and staying that way," she says.

MAF says it is working with the horticultural sector to see if existing certifiers are able to provide audits and verification and "whether the New Zealand GAP register of members can be used on individuals’ behalf".

Still, using New Zealand GAP might not be suitable for all fruit and vegetable growers.

"There is also a level of concern from very, very small growers. They haven’t seen the need to be part of that sort of program in the past and are basically caught up in the implications of the new regime," says Catley.

Uncertainty for small scale growers

Since the bill applies only to food produced or sold domestically in New Zealand, small, local producers face the biggest changes.

Pete Russell, director of a local Auckland fruit and vegetable delivery service, says he is lobbying for certain exemptions for small operations.

His business Ooooby is a hub for local farmers to sell produce in packaged boxes that are delivered on customers' doorsteps. The focus is on organic, natural and locally grown food, and fruit is about 30% of the business.

"Typically our growers are smaller growers with an orchard that may have been a legacy from a previously large orchard or a purchased sub-division of a larger, productive orchard," says Russell.

He believes there is already a downward trend for new small-scale operations and even though demand is high, the supply for local produce cannot always meet that.

"For us the biggest challenge with the Food Bill is that it discourages cottage-scale operations from operating because there will be application costs, registration costs.

"There will be compliance costs, and not just financial, but compliance costs in terms of the amount of time and the food safety plans that need to be developed."

Russell and similar operators have pushed the government for automatic exceptions for small businesses, so they will not register in the same category as larger horticultural businesses.

He would like to see businesses making less than NZ$65,000 (US$54,180) per year automatically exempt.

"You still need to comply with food safety procedures, but you’re not at the effect of the penalties that could be dished out and you’re not at the effect of food safety officers that have the right to be able to come in to where you’re producing food.

The government select committee has considered allowing automatic exemptions before a certain threshold, but MAF spokesperson Miriam Meister says it has proved tricky.

"If, for example, you set a profit threshold like NZ$65,000, then half the businesses in New Zealand would be exempt," she says.

"Someone may be classified as a small operator but they may still produce a high risk food, so it would be difficult to create a workable matrix.

"That was why they recommended giving the Chief Executive of MAF powers to exempt business under Section 95 of the Food Bill."

Increase penalties

The proposed bill will also raise the maximum penalty for food safety violations from NZ$5,000 (US$4,167) to NZ$100,000 (US$83,356) and up to five years in prison.

Critics complain that this penalty applies to all producers, regardless of size and see it as a feature that might discourage new businesses from starting.

"What could be an appropriate penalty for a large-scale operation like Zespri could be applied to a small backyard operator," says Russell.

"If for any reason the judgment was to go that way there’s no pro-rata penalty scheme."

However, Meister says this maximum penalty only applies to businesses that intentionally disregard food safety procedures, and responsible food operators, regardless of size, "have nothing to fear".

"The light penalties within the current act haven’t been enough to dissuade people from deliberately or knowingly exposing people to harm," she says.

"There are a number of offences in the Food Bill with the maximum penalties having been set to apply to businesses at the very top end of the scale that knowingly or recklessly sell unsafe food that will endanger or harm people."

More than anything, Russell sees the bill as a hurdle putting off new businesses.

"We see it as being a tightening of the screws that makes it just that much harder to make it viable to grow your own food and participate in food production for the local market."

Regardless of how the final legislation turns out, Catley at Horiculture New Zealand says there will be changes for almost all fruit and vegetable operations.

"We’ve definitely tried to communicate to growers that: they might think they’re small, but the actual definition of small in the bill is very, very small.

"What we’re trying to do is advise people that you might want to take a look at this and figure out how you will be affected, because we think there is a very strong chance that you will be affected one way or another."

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