INCREASING FOOD TAMPERING PENALTIES

Katherine Rich, Chief Executive of the NZ Food & Grocery Council reveals her latest insights to Supermarket News.

“Now that it’s happened, I doubt too many people disagree with the ban on plastic shopping bags. I think many understand that overuse of plastic is becoming a problem right through the environment, and particularly for marine life and the ramifications down that food chain.

Apart from the inconvenience of having to sort out a sufficient supply of alternative bags in which to pack our groceries (and the ever-growing number piling up in car boots), it’s become the new norm for shoppers. It’s certainly changed the action at the checkout.

From July 1, the odd supermarket that didn’t get the message could be subject to prosecution under the Waste Minimisation Act 2008, which allows for a whopping $100,000 fine for anyone selling any product that could cause serious harm when disposed of. (It’s severe but at least not as severe as in Mumbai, India, where just the use of a plastic bag can mean jail for repeat offenders!)

That issue dealt with, there’s another concerning supermarkets that I believe must be addressed as a matter of some urgency – that of food and grocery tampering, and the need to send a very strong message to those who might intentionally contaminate products or threaten to do so.

It’s an issue well known to anyone who runs a supermarket.

In recent years, there’s been the threat to contaminate New Zealand infant formula with 1080 poison, and last year there were the needles in strawberries in Australia. These are examples that have hit the headlines, but there have been others that have been dealt with by companies keen to keep such issues out of the limelight.

Thankfully, an arrest was made in the contamination case before it could be carried out. But the needle incidents in Australia did trigger copycats in New Zealand, and it’s preventing actions such as these that we need to get really serious about.

That’s why the Food & Grocery Council supports MP Nathan Guy’s Private Member’s Bill to increase the penalties for those who intentionally contaminate food.

FGC has previously advocated for a review of laws and penalties relating to malicious tampering with consumer goods, which also includes pharmaceuticals, natural products and other non-food consumer goods. Our members have believed for some time that current laws do not adequately deal with all aspects of malicious tampering.

This bill goes a long way to address that and sends the message to those who might think about threatening food safety, be they pranksters or those with more serious intent. For example, the bill would criminalise the contamination of food to cause public alarm, national economic loss or harm to public health with a penalty of 14 years’ jail; making threats to contaminate food with a penalty of 10 years; and hoax statements that cause public alarm, national economic loss or harm to public health with a penalty of 10 years.

Following the infant formula threat, we wrote to the Government suggesting a review of the law and included with it an analysis done for us by law firm Simpson Grierson. MPI said there was already a wide range of offences and penalties available. Last October, following the ‘needles in strawberries’ issues, we sent the same material to the present Government. The response was the same: “Our laws have continued to be fit for purpose.”

We don’t agree. The New Zealand economy relies hugely on the export of high-quality foods, beverages and other consumer goods, so our law must show that deliberate contamination is a serious crime that has consequences, not just locally but in terms of harming our reputation in global markets.

If we can see fit to have a law that could fine a supermarket $100,000 for supplying plastic bags, then surely we can have one that sends the strongest message to those whose actions might result not only in economic sabotage but also in significant threat to public health.”