Mixed Responses to Food Labelling Review

Posted by Josette Dunn on 31st January 2011

An independent panel led by former federal Health Minister Neal Blewett delivered the Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy 2011 to the Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Ageing Catherine King on Friday.
Woman at supermarket - nutrition label
Dr Alan Barclay, an accredited practicing dietitian and nutritionist, chief scientific officer for the Glycemic Index Foundation Ltd and head of research at the Australian Diabetes Foundation said that the recommendations are “a mixed bag”.

Dr Barclay agreed with the reiteration of a need for a National Nutrition Policy to underpin any food labelling framework, and the recommendations to use simpler words to describe food and nutrition concepts on food labels is also important for consumers.
“Commitment to finalisation of a comprehensive Nutrition, Health and Related Claim legislation is welcomed given debate on the topic has been going on for nearly 20 years.

“Elevation of the monitoring and enforcement of labelling issues to the same status as food safety issues is also an important recommendation.

“The recommendation for the formation of a Trans-Tasman Food Labelling Bureau is also a good first step, but a more comprehensive Food and Therapeutic Goods Authority would be better for consumers and regulators given the widespread abuse at the food-therapeutic goods interface (where Govt Jurisdiction is a pathetic game)” said Dr Barclay.

Ill-informed recommendations according to Dr Barclay include the emphasis on added sugars but ignorance of refined starches, which he said “is a concern as both are detrimental to health when consumed in excessive amounts”.

“More nutrition information on alcoholic beverages is welcomed, but limitation of full Nutrition Information to mixed alcoholic beverages will not help prevent the rampant consumer deception occurring with low-carb claims on beer, for example” said Dr Barclay.

Perhaps the area that is the focus of the most controversy is the labelling of GM ingredients.

“The Blewett panel scorns public demands for honesty and fairness in GM labelling by backing the status quo,” said Gene Ethics Director Bob Phelps.

“Australians were first asked in 1994 about GM food labels and every survey since then finds that over 90% want all GM-derived foods to be fully labelled.

“Despite this, in recommendation 29 they say: ‘only foods or ingredients that have altered characteristics or contain detectable novel DNA or protein be required to declare the presence of genetically modified material on the label’.

“All GM vegetable oils, starches and sugars, as well as the eggs, meat and milk from animals fed GM feed and restaurant or takeway meals, are all exempt from any GM labelling.

“And a 1% threshold for ‘adventitious’ (accidental) GM contamination is also allowed. This allows many products to bypass the labeling law, selling processed foods that routinely (not occasionally) contain GM soy, corn, canola and cotton, and their derivatives” said Mr Phelps.

CropLife’s Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Matthew Cossey disagreed with Mr Phelps, saying “The plant science industry welcomes the evidence and fact based approach that the Blewett Review has taken. There are several groups that exist in Australia who seem intent on scaring people about GM crops, so any discussion of GM labelling was always going to be contentious. We are grateful that the Panel reviewed the evidence and did not allow itself to be influenced by baseless and alarmist claims.”

Mr Cossey also noted that the review had failed to deliver what the biotechnology industry was requesting – a move to a voluntary food labelling system, in line with the existing system regarding the fat, salt, or sugar content of food.

“We agree with the report that there is no reason to expect that GM food ingredients are unsafe. We are therefore somewhat baffled that the report not only recommends continuing mandatory labelling but also recommends the further tightening of these requirements.

“In particular the need for monitoring and tests following the accidental presence of low levels of approved GM crops will impose costs on Australians at the checkout. CropLife calls on the Australian Government to approach this recommendation carefully in its response” said Mr Cossey.

It remains to be seen which of the review’s recommendations the Government will adopt, but it is certain that no matter what they do, they cannot please everyone.