Australian food labelling laws might continue to be pleasing to the food industry

Posted: February 4, 2011 in reflections
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The following article by Elizabeth Farrelly was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 03. February 2011, highlighting a serious lack of political will to tackle current food labelling laws in Australia. Both, the food regulator FSANZ and consecutive Australian governments have long been  accused of having a cozy relationship with food industry, and it seems that the latest Blewett report on change to food labelling, if implemented, will therefore not generate a revolution in the ways consumers get informed of what actually is contained in the foods we buy. Farrelly highlights some of the areas of food safety concern, including GM foods, and points out that (unsurprisingly) the “report ignored more than 5000 submissions that called for disclosure of extraneous chemicals in food, all but capitulating to industry lobbyists”. Looks like we’ll continue to remain guinea pigs.

It’s hard to swallow food rules that treat us like mushrooms


Illustration by Harry Afentoglou
Illustration: Harry Afentoglou

I often wonder how many people died, back in hunter-gather days, while we worked out that this berry was safe to eat but that one had to be peeled, mashed, soaked in human urine and boiled for a week or it made blood pour from your eyes.

Causality, in everything that matters, is almost always obscure, and our Neanderthal forebears may not have been fully across the idea of the control experiment. But now, if last week’s Blewett food-labelling review is anything to go by, it seems we too are happy to experiment on ourselves, and our children.

There are many, many instances where food safety is not clear. Genetic modification, hormone-additives, antibiotics, preservatives, pesticides, trans-fats and allergens are just a few areas where the jury is still out. In every case these extras exist as profit-enhancers, not nutrition-enhancers, and therefore have industry support. But they also arouse consumer suspicion, and quite rightly, for in no case is it proven that these ”food science” products are, actually, food.

This is a bit of a turn-up. We’re used to corporates v the community. We know that developers, miners and bankers are not on ”our” side. But food is different. It’s intimate. And the thought that our food producers – our cheery-faced farmers and bakers – would happily experiment with our well-being is still alarming. More alarming yet, however, is that our government is with them, not us.

The long-awaited Blewett report ignored more than 5000 submissions that called for disclosure of extraneous chemicals in food, all but capitulating to industry lobbyists. Big Food – which in many cases is identical with or owned by Big Pharma – insists, naturally, that these additives are harmless. But if so, why are they so reluctant to disclose? What are they hiding?

Take the hormones-in-beef thing. Coles has banned them. The meat industry responds by insisting the ban will cause environmental damage, requiring more feed, more land, more water, more fossil-fuel and more methane-rich cow-fart per kilo of meat. Like they care.

But the health questions are real. Europe banned hormone-fed beef in 1988 and reinforced the ban in 2007. Its scientists concluded that although the link between meat-hormones and cancer was unproven, there was sufficient ”epidemiological … evidence for an association between the amount of red meat consumed and certain forms of hormone-dependent cancers”, in particular breast and ovarian, prostate and testicular, for the ban to be prudent.

Hormones in meat, which include testosterone, progesterone and ultra-strong (body-building) replicas of these, have also been linked – inconclusively – to premature puberty.

So the label doesn’t need to say ”this meat could give you cancer” but simply ”this meat contains human growth hormone”. Let us decide.

The choice here is between ”safe until proved dangerous” and ”dangerous until proved safe”. If toxicity were proven, banning would be relatively simple (although even then, as with asbestos and tobacco, bans could still encounter industry opposition). But uncertainty makes labelling more important, not less. At root, it’s an FOI question; the guinea pig’s right to know.

Over Egypt, we are rightly outraged at Mubarak’s crackdown on knowledge, as much as the overall tyranny of which it is a basic tool. But when it comes to food we, too, are in the dark.

The standard rule-of-thumb for healthy eating is Michael Pollan’s ”eat food, mainly plants”. By ”food” he means not food-science. In other words, eat as close to the ground (or tree, or sea) as possible.

But say you wanted, now that school is back, to feed your kids this way. How would you do it? Say you wanted no GM (which many allergists blame for the global allergy epidemic), no hormones, no canola (links to macular degeneration) and no palm oil (saturated fat, destroys rainforest, kills orang-utans). How would you know?

Answer, you wouldn’t. Genetically modified corn and canola are grown commercially in Australia already and 1300 varieties of GM wheat were approved for pre-commercial testing last year. Much of the soy and corn grown in the US and used everywhere as emulsifiers and fillers is also GM. But although their presence in your mayo, margarine or muesli bars should be labelled, there are gaping loopholes.

The main one allows the silent presence of GM if less than 1 per cent, or less than 0.1 per cent and accidental. But because intentionality is hard to prove (and anyway scarcely enforced) the industry treats the 1 per cent as an allowable limit. This is the subject of Greenpeace’s action against Pfizer, whose S-26 newborn formula repeatedly tests positive for GM soy. Never mind why you would let a drug company feed your newborn. Pfizer’s repeated misfortune at finding GM soy in its formula seems a bit like bedwetting, you can just go on having ”accidents”.

Further, in ”refined” foods such as oils, where the modified DNA is in theory removed, there is no labelling requirement. Even the type of oil need not be explicit, but may come within the umbrella ”vegetable oil”.

Under the Blewett review, following industry pressure, none of this will change. Most industry pressure is naturally covert but some groups made submissions, like Dow AgroSciences. Dow insists that ”food label information should be restricted to information enabling consumers to make choices for healthy living” – which does not include GM because ”genetically-modified crops are thoroughly evaluated for safe consumption”. Uh, was that a double G in AgroScience?

You might think you could solve this by buying organic, and it would be true if there were a single, legally enforced definition. But no. Too easy. We even have governments, as in Western Australia, arguing to allow GM contamination in ”organic”.

If our own leaders persist in blinding us to what we eat we’ll need a supermarket iPhone app to sniff out the farmer from the pharma.

Point and shoot.

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