Plans to create stronger penalties for deliberate food contamination are being considered in New Zealand.

Nathan Guy, a member of parliament for the New Zealand National Party, has proposed a Member’s Bill to protect people from food safety threats by “reckless pranksters” or people intent on “economic sabotage.”

“Recent events here in New Zealand and across the Tasman, such as the strawberry needle scares, have identified the need for greater sanctions to prevent these sorts of idiotic behaviors,” said Guy, the party’s food safety spokesperson.

“Australia has already acted, passing stricter laws that seek to deter these criminals who contaminate food and water sources. New Zealand now lags behind our near neighbour, meaning offenders have less to fear if they are caught. Food tampering is not only economic sabotage on farmers and growers but also poses significant risks for consumers and New Zealand’s reputation as a producer of high quality and safe food.”

The bill would criminalize the contamination of food with a penalty of 14 years imprisonment. Making threats and hoax statements would carry a sentence of 10 years, and the maximum term of imprisonment for intentionally contaminating food would increase from 10 to 14 years.

The current New Zealand government involves the Labor, NZ First and Greens parties with National as the main opposition.

In September last year, Australia increased the maximum prison sentence for food tampering offences from 10 to 15 years. Offences linked to “reckless” conduct, such as hoaxes and social media posts showing food being tampered with, will carry penalties of up to 10 years imprisonment.

The move follows needles being found in strawberries grown in the state of Queensland. My Ut Trinh was charged with seven counts of contaminating goods and granted bail in November but hundreds of food contamination reports were received according to police.

Guy said parliament should send a strong message to anyone who considers food tampering and New Zealand should not be seen as a soft touch.

“New Zealand’s current penalties for these crimes are aligned with those for offences relating to dishonesty and conspiracy. We would argue that this is much more serious,” he said.

“The Crimes (Contamination Offences) Amendment Bill would help deter this offending by creating three new offences in the Crimes Act and will increase those penalties to align them with the more serious offences of corruption, espionage, treason and piracy.

“This bill recognizes the serious physical, psychological and economic effects of such actions. New Zealanders need to know their food is safe and manufacturers should be protected from economic loss such offenders can cause.”

Retail NZ, a trade association with about 4,000 members, welcomed the National Party proposals.

Retail NZ and the Food and Grocery Council asked the government to create a specific criminal offence relating to grocery sabotage but the groups said they had not received a response to the request.

Greg Harford, Retail NZ’s general manager public affairs, said the export sector and economy are dependent on public confidence in food safety being maintained.

“The recent needle issues, and the baby formula threats a few years ago demonstrate how vulnerable our food sector is to criminal activity. While industry is doing its bit to safeguard security, we believe it is essential that there is a specific criminal offence dealing with this issue,” he said.

“The Australian Commonwealth Government has already made it a specific offence to tamper with food, and has recently moved to strengthen the penalties associated with food terrorism. We think that it is important for New Zealand to follow suit, and to send a clear message to would-be criminals that sabotaging our nation’s food supply will not be tolerated.”

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