Thursday, October 8, 2009

“The Law is an Ass” – with apologies to Mr. Dickens.

In the last week, the Far North District Council in New Zealand has enforced the law and required community members to desist from cooking pickles and jams and selling them through a Hospice Shop. Over the years, these wonderful people have raised around $5000 for the hospice funds each year.

It appears that the District Council received a complaint that the goods were being produced in private kitchens. Under the Food Hygiene Regulations, the council was then obliged to investigate. The regulations specify that production of foods for public consumption may be conducted in unregistered premises only on special occasions.

This situation crops up more than you might expect. About 25 years ago, when my children were small, our country school raised significant amounts of money by pizza drives. About three times a year, the Parents Association purchased commercially made pizza bases and assembled pizzas for sale. The council received a complaint from a commercial pizza parlour that this was unfair competition, since the school did not have a registered premises and therefore had lower costs. We were able to comply with the regulations by specifying the number of times a year our Occasional Food Premises would be used and by registering a relatively simple Food Safety Programme.

To give credit where it is due, the Far North DC and the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) are looking at ways the volunteer cooks can continue to produce their foods. Their home kitchens are not registered premises and it is not practical for the volunteers to set up a separate kitchen. I’m looking forward to seeing how the Authority gets around its own antiquated regulations.

However, what is the real risk? The products are essentially heated, acid foods – jams are made from acidic fruit and have a low water activity*, so the most likely microbial spoilage – if there were to be any – would be mould growth, which would be apparent to the consumer. Pickles are acidified foods and the low pH has the same effect, preventing the growth of pathogens. So the microbiological risk to consumers is low. Fruit cakes and similar baked goods are not hazardous either. Obviously, good hygiene in production and handling of all these foods is essential and potential contamination with cleaning chemicals etc. must be prevented.

What are the most hazardous foods on sale today? According to the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, these are leafy greens, with 363 outbreaks (13,568 reported cases of illness); eggs (11,163), tuna (2341), oysters (3409), potatoes (3659), cheese (2761), ice cream (2594), tomatoes (3292), sprouts (2022) and berries (3397). These are listed in order of outbreaks. Notice that jams, pickles and cakes don’t figure in the statistics.

Back in the Far North, everyone is looking to see this resolved soon, so that the volunteers can resume their work for the hospice. The Food Hygiene Regulations are due for replacement with a new Food Act that will shift the emphasis to risk assessment of food processing operations.

As the Assistant Director of NZFSA apparently said, “The law isn't based on common sense and we're looking to improve things."

* See the end of "Free Choice or Safety of the Population" for an explanation of water activity.

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