Government Proposes Single Food Safety Agency

  • Dr Lockwood Smith

The Government is to begin consultations on a proposal to improve consumer confidence in the safety of food through the establishment of a single food safety agency, Agriculture Minister Lockwood Smith and Associate Health Minister Tuariki John Delamere announced today.

The ministers were commenting after the release of the discussion document Assuring Food Safety. It outlines the proposal for a single agency, based in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF). The agency would be tasked with protecting public health, better integrating food administration and regulation, and improving the facilitation of access to international markets for food products.

"Currently, responsibility for food safety is spread around different parts of the bureaucracy," the ministers said. "The Ministry of Health, MAF and territorial authorities all have different responsibilities. Often these overlap, creating confusion over who's accountable. Consumers don't always know who to approach. Business finds it difficult and expensive to implement food safety programmes because of the overlap in responsibilities.

"To fix this, we believe there should be one agency with a single focus on food safety, and much clearer legislation and regulations. Consultation last year showed widespread support for this approach.

"As a result, we're proposing combining the Ministry of Health's responsibility for domestic food safety with MAF's responsibility for export food safety, in the new agency.

"We're then proposing to eventually align major legislation regulating food, possibly in one act. We believe this will lead to better assurances about the safety of food, and up to half a million dollars a year savings in compliance costs for business. It will also bring our systems into line with the modern food business."

The ministers said MAF had been chosen as the base for the agency because food administration is part of MAF's core business. MAF certification of export food safety is already world-recognised and will be able to be continued to be used. MAF also has more staff, both in Wellington and in the field, who are involved in food administration, than does the Ministry of Health. Shifting Health staff to MAF will therefore cause less disruption than shifting MAF staff to Health. Only around a dozen Health staff will have to shift departments, and the new agency would continue to use existing field services. No redundancies or job losses are expected.

The ministers said the proposed reform would only affect responsibility for food safety in products and premises. Wider responsibility for surveillance and investigation of communicable diseases generally (including food-borne illnesses in humans) will remain with Health. A close working relationship between the new agency and the Ministry of Health will therefore continue to be necessary. Close collaboration will also need to occur between regulatory officers associated with the new agency and public health regulatory officers in the field.

"Given the importance of food safety, careful consultation is needed before reform is implemented. In particular, we need feedback on how the proposed process should work in practice and how the roles and responsibilities of central agencies should be finally defined."

Consultation will begin in Auckland on 20 August and written submissions are also encouraged. Copies of Assuring Food Safety can be obtained from MAF or the Ministry of Health.