IS THE FOOD ACT WORKING?

The Food Act 2014, despite the name, came into force at the start of March 2016. It promised to reflect a more modern and common-sense approach to food safety regulation, but has so far caused nothing but headaches. Over 800 Auckland restaurants were left without food safety grades at the start of July, while small producers around the country are shelling out exorbitant verification fees to independent auditors after local councils opted out of providing the system themselves.

“Anything new or changed can create uncertainty for some people for a time,” said MPI Food & Beverage manager Sally Johnston. “We are still in the implementation transition period, which ends 28 February 2019, so there’s still work to do.”

Motueka hazelnut growers Toni Elliot and Smoky Fry are considering giving up their business after new requirements under the Act have seen their costs soar. Under the rules, the pair can sell shelled hazelnuts directly to consumers, but must register under the Act in order to send nuts to other manufacturers, even if the nuts remain in their shells. The business must be verified under the national programme, which could cost them up to $1600. The Tasman District Council opted out of providing the verification service, citing difficulties and confusion through the application process, so private auditors carry out the service. Private auditors can charge whatever they choose, which can lead to high costs in areas outside the main centres.

Out of 61 territorial authorities and six unitary councils, 29 had opted in to providing the service. “We recently provided councils with a fast-track option to provide National Programme verification,” explained Johnston. “We have also communicated the additional competencies needed to effectively verify food sectors that council staff do not have current experience with. A key priority for New Zealand Food Safety is to seek ways to reduce the costs for businesses, especially for small businesses, and this includes exploring new options for delivery of verification services.”

However, acting as a verified auditor comes with its own challenges, as evidenced by the situation in Auckland. Under the law, food businesses which opened before March 2016 had three years to transition to a ‘risk-based’ verification system rather than the Council’s inspection system. Businesses completing the second phase of transition, which was due to be completed by July 1, were slow to adapt, leading to a backlog at the Council. Many of the venues with expired licences had been given an A at the last inspection.

Mervyn Chetty, environmental health manager at the Council, said that many of those operating under expired grades had been verified but the records had not been updated but could not give an exact figure.

“Most of our food operators understand the importance of producing safe and suitable food, and the majority of our businesses are A grades,” he said. “We are facing an unprecedented and significant shift in the way food safety is managed in New Zealand and there have been some challenges along the way.”

In response to these problems, MPI released the Food Safety Toolkit, an updated Simply Safe & Suitable template Food Control Plan, and a new Food Safety Template for Winemakers.

“New Zealand Food Safety is continuously finding new ways to make it easier for New Zealand businesses to follow the Food Act 2014 rules,” said Johnston. “These tools aim to reduce, the time, effort and costs it takes for food businesses to meet food safety and suitability requirements. The tools are written and presented in clear, easy-to-understand formats, keeping in mind operators who have low literacy levels or use English as a second language.”

The next phase of applications is to be submitted by 30 November 2018, with the Food Act 2014 finally coming into full force on 28 February 2019.