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New law worries small-time food outlets

Tuesday 24 Jan 2012 3:34 p.m.

By Lachlan Forsyth

Every Friday at an idyllic little spot in Northland, locals meet to trade their backyard produce - a few eggs, some vegetables, flowers and fruits.

But all this harmless produce is about to be subject to a new law, and that's because of the processed stuff - the pickles, jams, and breads.

“It seems like total overkill," says Trish Allan of Matakana Community Swap. "It just seems crazy to stifle community grassroots little things like this.”

Anyone who sells, barters, or even gives away food will soon have to get their head around the new law.

The food bill does not put a stop to selling homegrown produce, nor does it stop people trading processed foods like breads and jams, but it does impose new food handling guidelines.

And if there's a third party involved in the food that changes everything.

If you grow an apple and sell or give it to party A, that is exempt under the new bill. But if party A then sells or gives the apple to party B, that's when the law will kick in

Peter Russell runs Ooooby - short for Out Of Our Own Backyards - an organic food distribution business that takes in, and gives out, locally-grown food.

So Ooooby will be subject to the food bill's requirements.

Ooooby founder Peter Russell says it has taken him a while to get his head around the law.

“The effect will be the supply base for Ooooby, which is homegrown food, may also need to comply to the food bill as well, in which case the cost and the knowledge and the time of developing a food safety plan would just make it prohibitive. It just wouldn't be viable so therefore it could squander our supply base, and make it very difficult to do the work we want to do.”

Distributing food will fall into three categories, depending on the operation's size and scale. Even sausage sizzles or local produce swaps may need to be registered for basic food handling advice.

Lisa Er, founder of Lisa's Hummus, says although we need legislation it needs to be user-friendly.

“This is not a user-friendly bill. It's complicated, it's confusing and it looks as though there are going to be really severe penalties for people who make mistakes.”

If the food bill had been around 15 years ago, Ms Er says the compliance costs mean her company would never have got off the ground.

“I had absolutely no money, nothing to invest at all," she says. "I had been on a benefit so I was starting from the ground up. Lisa's now has 123 employees, so that's made a difference to the country, but I couldn't even have started because I had no money whatsoever."

The intention of the food bill is to update a 30-year-old law, bringing us into line with international standards and improve food safety.

But people who will have to work with it say it’s ambiguous.

“The food bill isn't bad," says Mr Russell. "It is elements within the food bill that have been woven in that are the problem."

Even before it's passed into law, part of the bill to do with growing and storing seeds is being amended. But critics believe the bill should be thrown out completely

“Any legislation which has as many obvious challenges to people wanting to take control over and responsibility for their own food production and distribution is a concern,” says James Samuel, Ooooby co-founder

He believes it'll actually discourage small producers from providing for communities.

“It's concerning because it puts people in a position where they're in doubt about whether they could be challenged and could be subject to the penalties - which are enormous.”

The maximum penalty for an individual is $100,000 and five years' imprisonment.

“I'd have gone back teaching," says Ms Er. "I wouldn't have done it at all, it's just too much."

“You take a cottage food set-up, even a small business set-up - there are so many areas they could get it wrong, that boom you're done - you forgot that little detail," says Mr Russell. "They don't have the capacity to get legal help to know whether they're complying so the only safe thing to do is back away."

Ms Allen from the Matakana Community Swap is a trader who won’t be backing away, but she's annoyed by the thought that a loaf of her focaccia bread could turn her into a criminal

“Why make us lawbreakers? Our message to the Government is change it now before it goes through, not after, to make things like this exempts.”

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