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Cabinet approves development of new food laws

Cabinet approves development of new food laws

The Government has approved a package of recommendations designed to update and streamline food regulation in New Zealand, says Food Safety Minister Annette King.

During the three year Domestic Food Review of New Zealand's entire decades-old food regulatory programme the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) identified inequities in the way the food industry is regulated across the country, a lack of clarity in the roles of the regulators (NZFSA, Public Health Units and Local Authorities) and a continued rise in the number of reported foodborne illnesses.

Ms King says the Cabinet has agreed that the Food Act should be amended/replaced to modernise the food regulatory system with the aim of ensuring "our vital food sector is positioned to deal with the significant growth expected over the next 20 years. A key will be to make food operators responsible for providing safe and suitable food. It is also intended that government interventions and compliance costs are minimised."

In practical terms, agreement of the recommendations means NZFSA will:

· Introduce a range of risk-based tools designed to help food operators manage food safety and suitability.

· Clarify the roles and responsibilities of the regulators.

· Develop education and training requirements for food operators.

Drafting changes to the law will now begin, and the transition to the new regime is expected to begin in July 2008 and to take about five years, says Ms King.

The next phase of the process will see NZFSA consulting on a proposed timetable for transition to the new system. The paper Transition Policy and Related Implementation provides details of both regulatory and non-regulatory tools which will be used, including the elements which will make up the tools and the draft timetable of when sectors will be transferred to the new regime.


Questions and Answers

Why make changes to New Zealand Food Law?
New Zealand's food regulatory regime has not been thoroughly reviewed for over 30 years. The current system has not stemmed the continued rise in the number of reported foodborne illnesses. There are inequities with the way the food industry is regulated across the country and a lack of clarity in the roles of the regulators involved (NZFSA, Public Health Units and Local Authorities).
NZFSA was charged with reviewing the systems and intends to move food regulation, along with most other developed countries, from an inspection-based system to a risk-based approach. This means that instead of the responsibility for food safety being placed on inspectors to find any problems, responsibility is moved to the person in charge of the food operation who must be proactive in the way they manage food safety and suitability and must demonstrate how they manage food safety.

Who will be affected by the changes?
Everyone who sells food in New Zealand will be affected. Business sectors will transition into the new system over a five year period with those presenting the greatest risk transitioned first.

How will NZFSA help food operators change from one system to another?
The majority of food businesses are small, less complex operations, such as cafés, restaurants and corner dairies. NZFSA will develop and make available free of charge, off-the-peg templates and associated guidance material for these types of businesses that will aid food safety management. The templates will generally be a series of checklists and prompts which people will fill in the details of how they address each section in their operation.

What is it going to cost food operators?
For most businesses, costs will be similar to what they currently pay. Businesses will incur costs for registering (as they do now) and for ongoing verification. The off-the-peg templates for less complex businesses will be made available free of charge.

Why blame foodborne illness on business - isn't food handling in the home the problem?
The organisms that cause foodborne illnesses can occur at many points in the farm to fork continuum. People and organisations at every step in the chain have a part to play to ensure the safety of food.

What is meant by 'tools' and what are they?
There will be a suite of tools designed to manage food safety and suitability at a level proportional to the risk posed by the business. Food Control Plans (FCPs) will be the tool used to manage most food operations. Food Control Plans can be off-the-peg or custom-made. Off-the-peg FCPs will be designed by NZFSA and made available free of charge for less complex food operations such as cafes and corner dairies (ie, most businesses that are currently covered by the Food Hygiene Regulations). More complex operations such as manufacturers will be required to develop their own FCP. FCPs will be evaluated to ensure they effectively manage food safety and suitability (NZFSA-approved off-the-peg FCPs will not require evaluation), registered, and verified on an ongoing basis to ensure the operators are following their plan and are successfully managing risks.

National Programmes (similar to Regulated Control Schemes) may be developed where it is more practical for the risk to be managed nationally rather than by an individual business. National Programmes are initiated and developed by regulation and so would be developed by NZFSA, in conjunction with industry associations where appropriate.

Food Handler Guidance is a non-regulatory tool with an educational focus which will be used for operations with a small and less severe potential for impact, such as the majority of bed and breakfast businesses and fund raising activities.

What will be the role of Local Authorities?
Local Authorities will provide a 'one stop shop' for all new businesses and will provide advice on the level of tool required to adequately manage food safety and suitability. They may choose to register and verify off-the-peg Food Control Plans. Local Authorities will undertake verification (audit) of off-the-peg Food Control Plans and for some business sectors they will be the only verifiers permitted in part to ensure they maintain their current local profile.

What will be the role of the Public Health Units?
Public Health Units will be involved with developing food safety management tools, assessing custom-made Food Control Plans, investigating complaints and assisting with enforcement action.

How will you know the changes are making a difference?
Part of the package of recommendations is for NZFSA to develop a performance monitoringsystem. This will be an ongoing programme that determines the effectiveness of the food regulatory regime as a whole against a series of agreed indicators.

Will the changes provide the public with increased confidence in the food system?
Yes, this is the purpose of the reform. It is proposed to develop a range of public sanction and compliance tools. These range from positive endorsement such as food safety awards, incentive schemes, and performance-based verification to a national grading programme and the publication of businesses' grading results, public apologies and prohibition notices.


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