Food Bill

Food Bill

The Politics of Getting a Feed

The vans arrive next to the railway station early; before dawn farmers are already setting up the tables in their usual spots. They chat to their neighbours before the first customers arrive. A variety of products can be found across the stalls, from Vegetables, cakes, and Grandma’s jam, to homemade cheeses. The hustle and bustle of the next few hours will bring the station back to its heyday, when Dunedin was the gold-plated gem of New Zealand. Now the only trains that run are scarce and touristy. The rise in popularity of Farmers’ Markets across the country is giving something back to the local economy. However, the Kiwi trend of buying local could be under threat though. Farmers’ Markets, sausage sizzles and community gardens could all suffer under the government’s new Food Bill. One lady selling vegetables says she is “concerned”. The vendor next to her fears “the cost of maintenance will go up the roof”. Meanwhile the management of the Market say the 5000-odd buyers shouldn’t feel worried, as “it won’t affect individual vendors”.

Farmers and small-scale traders across the country hardly have time to read a 365-page bill. Some, who have been dubbed conspiracy theorists, claim the Food Bill has an Orwellian tinge. Under the guise of safety, they say it will actually lead to a degradation of our freedoms and increased control.

In early December the Otago Daily Times ran the headline “Police Arrest Pensioner Found Supplying Carrots”. The article claimed that the Bill would revoke our right to grow food, becoming “a government-authorised privilege”. Other media outlets also demonstrated the growing concern citizens had. In a Campbell Live interview, former Green MP Sue Kedgley stated that exchanges with neighbours would also have to comply with the vague provisions of the Bill. She said the Bill “could end up discouraging healthy food choice”.

Politicians get Political

The Bill “seeks to provide an efficient, risk-based regulatory regime that places a primary duty on persons trading in food to ensure that what is sold is safe and suitable”. According to the New Zealand Food Safety Authority, food-borne illnesses cost $162 million a year to the economy.
Farmers’ Marketeers though believe it will increase costs. Some people think it would lead to an end of small-scale trade altogether and others are more concerned with an ulterior motive: the Bill would give unnecessary rights to Food Safety Officers (FSOs), who will be able to search private properties and get rid of small-scale competition.

Kate Wilkinson, Minister of Food Safety, rubbishes the claims, saying it won’t “in any way affect people’s right to grow food and to then exchange, sell or trade it”. She labels the denouncers as either misinformed or scaremongers. According to the Minister, the Bill will simplify 30-year-old legislation and will minimise the risk to public health. During the first reading in Parliament, the majority of parties supported the Bill, but just a few months later National could lose its support.

David Clark, Labour MP for Dunedin North, says his party “won’t give final support to the Bill”. Though the old act “needs updating”, the Labour Party wants to avoid “unnecessary red tape” and “protect local growers and small businesses”. The same goes for sausage sizzle and cake stands; Clark doesn’t want to see these jeopardized by new legislation. Steffan Browning, Safe Food spokesperson for the Green Party, fears the new regulations could increase costs. The Green Party is keen for geographical exemptions, which would be more environmentally friendly and would encourage local food consumption. Browning doesn’t believe the “issues” arise from local growers; instead the spread of diseases such as E-coli or campylobacter originate in bigger industries that manufacture more elaborate products – particularly the meat industry. Damien O’Connor, Labour spokesperson for Food Safety, says Parliament agrees that the commercial storage of chicken in particular has to be improved.

Phil Bremer, professor at the University of Otago’s Food Science department, says larger industries already self-regulate. In order to compete, big companies such as Tesco or Walmart hire third-party auditors.

The International Socialist Organisation (ISO) in Dunedin points out that the Bill won’t do anything about the fat, sugar or additive levels in food. Browning also warns that under the Bill in its current form, OUSA as a students’ association would not be allowed to hold sausage sizzles without red tape being fried in the process.

I promise not to mention Monsanto …

The Government was quick to take out a clause that said seed-sharing would become illegal. Facebook groups and the New Zealand Food Security website soon picked up on the “slip-up” that would have benefited giant agribusiness and fertiliser corporations. The Bill is not just a new version of an old act, it follows the guidelines of the Codex Alimentarius, a set of food regulations pushed by the World Trade Organisation. According to Winsome Parnell, nutrition policy expert at the University of Otago, the Codex aims to create better environments for trade by setting equivalent regulations throughout the world. The Bill seems to be set up for large producers trading by international standards, so the measures will push local traders to stand by hitherto unprecedented regulations. Steffan Browning says there should be geographical exemptions to encourage local producers in their own markets.

The Private Food Police

Adding to the ambiguity of the Bill is section 243, which allows the Minister of Agriculture and Forestry to appoint Food Safety Officers who don’t work for the State. A spokesman from the Federated Farmers says the “powers of FSOs will be no different now than before”. However, the fact that the private sector can contract them as well could lead to “conflicts of interest”. FSOs contracted for private interests will have the same functions as those employed by the state. They will have the right to search premises without a search warrant and to seize and dispose of food if they “reasonably believe” somebody may not be complying with the Act. This could go against the New Zealand’s Bill of Rights, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

David Clarke points out that private FSOs are an example of the ongoing push for privatisation by the National government. This will cut hundreds of jobs and put food safety in the hands of private companies. The Government says FSOs shall act in “good faith”, otherwise they can be sued. What is “good faith” though? The answer may well be subjective, so it could end up as your word against theirs in court. For the ISO, the best FSOs would be the workers themselves. They say empowered and educated workers will know the best working conditions, as a democratically-owned production system would be able to choose better than police enforcements.

Mess with my sausage, and you mess with me

OUSA’s sausage sizzles will only be accepted after piles of bureaucracy. The fact that non-charitable organisations will be subject to this is a type of censorship, especially for the less powerful organisations. But to make it worse, the Bill would give the Minister of Agriculture and Forestry rights to create particular exemptions and change whole clauses altogether. So while it is possible to foresee an exemption for OUSA’s wedge of paperwork, we are much more likely to see the Food Act taking away rights from such organisations. We all know the National Government isn’t that keen on student associations!

For our “security”, the government will be able to strip rights from small-scale farmers as soon as one accident occurs. Potentially, they will also be able to barge into student flats to seize homebrew or barbeques.

These unprecedented rights given to the ministry allow it to change the whole Act to suit some interests, whenever it feels like it. Agribusiness, with their massive lobbying budgets, could gain rights to work more effectively in New Zealand and then use FSOs to further their own goals.

Though the government calls them loonies, when it comes to this bill, conspiracy theorists could be right. It is the combination of the Food Bill’s vague premises and overarching powers that make it dangerous in the first place.
As of March 1 an online petition opposing the bill has received almost 42,000 signatures. If you disagree with the Food Bill, sign the petition at
This article first appeared in Issue 3, 2012.
Posted 6:37pm Sunday 11th March 2012 by Staff Reporter.