Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Food Bill - not what you think?

It sounds so ominous - a piece of legislation that has attracted more attention in New Zealand in recent months than even our rushed through anti-terrorist and anti-piracy debacles.  When I first read about the potential for this legislation to criminalise the gifting or bartering of home-grown vegetables and home made jams or of seed saving and WWOOFing I was a little bit terrified.  I even tried to read the legislation to see if all these accusations were true or just some kind of fast-spreading internet fear virus perpetuated by the scare-mongering media.  Somewhere in the hundred or so nonsensical pages I discovered that I can't actually read legislation.  So I waited and read the things people posted on Facebook, sometimes anxiously and sometimes cynically, depending on my mood.

However, I've just read an email that significantly altered my perceptions.  Maybe this is old news and my passive way of receiving information is not particularly effective, either way, it's news to me.  This was one of the email attachments.  So, if we can believe anything a Govt. website says at face value, the current food legislation makes sausage sizzles and bake sales illegal (somewhat ineffectively), whereas the new Food Bill, far from stripping our food sovereignty down to its knickers, actually frees us up, legally, to do what we were already doing anyway.  Apparently: "The Food Bill takes a flexible, risk-based approach to the production of safe food" and appears to focus on commercial food manufacturers and the safety of the food they produce.  That doesn't sound too bad (especially if you're not a food manufacturer).

So what about growing food at home and giving it away? 

5. What’s not covered in the Food Bill?

The Food Bill does not cover food grown at home or made for personal consumption, any food given away or shared with anyone.
It is an age old Kiwi tradition for people to grow food for themselves, share their excess homemade food with friends or neighbours, or to hold pot luck dinners. The Food Bill will not prevent food being given away or shared with anyone, including food grown at home.
Technically bartering is counted as trading under the current food bill, although Govt. expresses that the bill is aimed at commercial bartering turning a blind eye to all that under-the-table zucchini swapping that we are going to do anyway without tithing to the IRD.

Now to the nitty gritty.  We all know that seed saving/swapping and WOOFers are really neat and important (at least in my opinion), so is this law actually a threat to such lovely activities?  That's an interesting one.  It turns out it was, originally, and maybe it's only since we all kicked up a fuss on Facebook and started signing online petitions that the bill has been altered:

9. Will the Food Bill cover seeds or WWOOFers?

No. The sale or trade of seeds for planting and providing food to Willing Workers On Organic Farms (WWOOFers) was unintentionally captured in the original Bill. The Minister for Food Safety has asked MAF to ensure food producing plants, plant material, seeds and providing food to WWOOFers are not covered. The change will be made in a Supplementary Order Paper (SOP) when the Bill is again considered by Parliament.

Unintentionally captured my ass.  I bet there was someone who had a vendetta against these unregulated free-spirited activities - or maybe that's just my paranoia kicking in.  Either way, they're safe for now.  On the subject of paranoia, I was suspicious that all this food tightening was in line with US law as part of a forecasted free trade agreement.  Who know, maybe it is, but apparently it's not some kind of World Trade Org thing: 

15. Is the Food Bill about meeting obligations under the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement and obeying the Codex Alimentarius?

No. The Food Bill is the result of our own Domestic Food Review. The Bill is not copied from or influenced by the legislation of any other country. It has been written in New Zealand for all food sold and made in New Zealand, whether it is for the domestic or export market.

So, if we can trust the good old Govt. it doesn't seem too scary after all, influenced, so it seems, by online participant driven activism and public outcry.  Or maybe it's all a scam and they're just telling us what we want to hear.  Until I learn to read legislation I will never know.


  1. Well, all of that sounded like good news until I read "So, if we can trust the good old Govt...." which I personally don't believe we can... so we're back to 'who the heck knows' and I'm back to my year of avoiding the media, which is coming along swimmingly :)

  2. Fiona, at least they've come out and said all of this (and changed the proposed legislation) in response to public pressure. I feel a good pinch of cynicism is important when reading anything the Govt. puts out, but I'm also optimistic and less worried about this bill, particularly as it makes legal the previously illegal bake sales and sausage sizzles - the opposite of what I thought it was doing.

  3. Yeah, people selling for charitable purposes are okay under the bill, as long as they don't sell more than 20 times a year, or (in some cases) sell from a premises where doing so is not the main activity.

    It's the people who are not doing it for charitable purposes that I feel more concerned about. (And there is quite a narrow definition of charitable purposes.) Swapping or directly selling (to a consumer) completely unprocessed home grown fruit or veges is fine - no matter who you are. But once it gets a bit more processed - turned into a preserve, or baked, or dried, or possibly even sorted and mixed - you are subject to the law. (And it certainly seems that this new Bill, once it passes into law, is intended to be enforced much more stringently and forcefully than the current food laws.)

    As for seeds, the amendments to make sure seeds are 'uncaptured' haven't been made yet, but the MInister has certainly promised very publicly that they will be, so it seems unlikely she could back down from that now .... but then again there are significant powers given to the minister to effectively amend the Bill through regulation once it's passed ...

  4. Johanna, at the moment selling any kind of processed food legally is already a bit tricky on a small-scale. You have to use a commercial kitchen, etc. Farmers' Markets (at least the ones I'm familiar with) won't allow food to be sold unless it's processed in a commercial kitchen. Some friends of mine who make balm also have to comply with this rule (in case it enters the mouth) which is pretty ridiculous.

    I suppose it's hard to know how this legislation will be enforced compared to the current one. I just home the Minister keeps her promise. It would be very bad PR for the Government if people were prosecuted for trading jam.

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