Sunday, August 17, 2014

Legal food

When I checked Facebook this morning, I noticed a post from Martha’s Backyard, an Auckland store that sells American products (especially food items and snack foods, but other things, too). I’ve mentioned Martha’s on this blog several times. I’m a real fan. But, their post was odd.

The post (pictured above – click to enlarge) was actually a re-posting of an email they sent out to customers like me. It was talking about unloading the latest container of products from the USA, and then added:
“As a result of corporate bullying but hey, we'll remain positive and won't go there… we have had a complete review done of our products and unfortunately a few were identified as containing ingredients not allowed in New Zealand. It is because of our continued integrity at Martha's Backyard that months ago we discontinued these products to satisfy New Zealand's rules.”
I don’t know the context—maybe the government officials seemed “bullying”, since it’s not unusual for such government officials to be, well, gruff, for example. However, without more explanation, it comes across as a bit arrogant, as if New Zealand law shouldn’t apply equally.

The message said that officials banned products mostly because they contained the artificial food colouring, FD&C Red No. 3, which has been shown to cause cancer in humans. In addition to being used as a food colouring, it’s also used to colour teeth for showing plaque, in printing inks and other industrial uses. It’s banned in many European countries, but can be used freely in the USA.

Food standards in this part of the world are set by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). This is a legal entity set up by the New Zealand and Australian governments in 1991 to ensure that food standards are the same in both countries. This essentially makes New Zealand and Australia one market for food manufacturers, something that has enormous advantages for New Zealand and Australian companies, as well as those from overseas.

Our food standards can be completely different from the USA. For example, no additives apart from salt and water are permitted in butter sold in New Zealand. If it has any other (permitted) additive, it must be called a “spread”, not butter. Our standards are definitely much better than US standards in some cases, however, whether better, worse or neutral, FSANZ standards are the law and it’s every business’ responsibility to know and obey the law.

FSANZ publishes its standards online, though I think they’re difficult to sort through. But they are available. Most products will be okay, but before importing a new product, I would’ve thought it would be a good idea to check out its ingredients and verify they’re legal for sale in New Zealand (or Australia, for that matter).

This isn’t just about Martha’s, of course. Foodmarkets that carry foreign products (Asian foodmarkets, for example) are also monitored to make sure the products they sell comply with FSANZ standards. Some products DO slip through, however, but officials act when they become aware that products with illegal ingredients are on sale.

There are also separate biosecurity rules at play (viable seeds can’t be imported, for example). This doesn’t usually affect imported processed products, however, so most retail stores shouldn’t have many run-ins over those rules.

The bottom line, as I said earlier, is that it’s the responsibility of businesses to know and obey the law. Yes, government departments would do well to get a customer service ethos into the way they work, rather than have inspectors act as if they see themselves as, basically, cops. Regardless, they’re acting to keep food products sold in this country safe, and the fact that they find products with illegal ingredients isn’t their fault.

The law is the law, after all.

This post is a revised and expanded version of something I originally posted on Facebook.

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