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Monday, 21 June 1999
Page: 6821

Mr RIPOLL (1:10 PM) —I move:

That this House:

(1) notes the importance of food labelling in providing consumers with accurate nutritional information;

(2) recognises that food labelling regulations must contain enough information so that consumers can be confident a product is good value for money, meets their health and nutritional standards and falls within their cultural and religious requirements;

(3) recognises that nutritional and dietary related illnesses are matters of public health;

(4) expresses concern at the Howard Government's deregulation of food labelling controls;

(5) condemns the Howard Government's failure to acknowledge and respond to the level of community anxiety over food labelling deregulation; and

(6) calls upon the Howard Government to reverse its decision on food labelling deregulation, work towards greater protection and information for consumers and maintain the health department's role in regulating nutritional and dietary matters.

I have previously spoken on this matter in the parliament, but I now have over 5,000 petitioners from my electorate who demand that this matter be debated and the government's position be challenged. Honesty is the cornerstone of consumer protection. It is the government's responsibility to make laws that ensure all sellers are honest about the products they sell. The test of honesty goes beyond whether a lie is told. It is the providing of all information that should be provided to the consumer. Food labelling must not be allowed to be misleading. It cannot deceive, nor should it fail to provide information that a consumer deserves to know about a product.

There are few things more important than protecting the quality and integrity of the food we eat. Currently, food labelling falls short of the public's expectation. Rather than going backwards, we must look seriously at ensuring that all relevant information is available to the consumers at the point of purchase. Food labels must use language that accurately describes the product. The minimum composition requirements are essential for the purposes of comparison shoppers. No-name or no-frills brands do not have a corporate reputation to protect and may therefore produce the cheapest allowable product. This means that low income families choosing the cheapest ice-cream in the supermarket could well buy the cheap substitute ice-cream confection labelled as `ice-cream'. While this product may be cheaper, if your intention was to purchase real ice-cream, then you would be ripped off.

Labelling should not just describe the product. The community also expects that important nutritional information is provided on the product. Information about the levels of salt, fats and sugars as well as vitamins, iron and protein must be provided along with a list of all the ingredients. I am concerned that some food labelling proposals will take away valid distinctions from the nutritional panel, such as the banding together of carbohydrates without a distinction for sugars as opposed to more complex carbohydrates. For example, any label that suggest that oats are of equal nutritional value to Cocoa Pops is of no real use to consumers.

Any labelling of ingredients must also label genetically engineered food products. The level of community concern over GE foods cannot be dismissed. The concerns range from those who philosophically and fundamentally oppose genetic engineering—these people wish to know what foods are genetically modified so that they may avoid them completely—to those sufferers of quite severe allergies. These people have often dramatic and sometimes fatal reactions to the proteins contained in certain food groups. Therefore, when the tomato is genetically modified with the genes of, say, flounder for frost resistance there is a potential impact for the many people allergic to seafood. Only by labelling GE tomatoes or products with GE tomatoes can we ensure that these people are protected.

With GE foods, public health remains as the central issue in food regulation. With genetic engineering advancing at such a rapid pace we are all left with questions over this emerging food source, questions about genetic engineering and the environment, genetic engineering and food quality, genetic engineering and our health and also genetic engineering and our primary industries.

Food and diet are such an important part of overall health. That is why the role of regulating our food should be the responsibility of the health department. The government's proposal to shift ANZFA's responsibility away from health and into primary industries represents a dangerous realignment of focus for the government. Food laws should not be the responsibility of food producers. Food laws must be health laws.

This motion condemns the Howard government's failure to acknowledge and respond to the level of community anxiety over this issue. I have been listening to the community about food labelling, and I share their concerns. We urge the government to talk to the community about these proposals and find out why we are unhappy and why these changes cause concern. Along with the thousands of petitions sent to my office on this issue I have received many letters. All of these letters have expressed support for the views I raise here. These people who have written their support for the underlying wisdom of food labelling regulation fail to understand why the government would want to remove such protection. But, instead of just my words on this matter, I wish to expose the government to some of the wisdom of my constituents. Mrs Rose writes:

I am sure none of the Australian population wish to be misled in any area. I am not in favour of the changes in food labelling or even in the new idea of genetic engineering of growing food. This will mean we will not have any idea of what we are eating.

Mrs Whiting says:

About time for a stand to be made on this matter. I know only too well the impact that will be inflicted on many of us if the Howard government is successful. I myself have allergies and sensitivities to foods, I know of many others that do also. The situation is bad enough to cope with, without having misleading labels on foods. The present situation on labelling is bad enough without the Howard government inflicting an even worse situation. For some of us it is not just an adverse reaction to foods that apply if that isn't bad enough but to some the matter is of life or death.

Mr Woods sent a short note to say he is thankful for:

. . . opportunity to protest against the proposed food regulation. I am totally against what the bill stands for. I hope that we will be successful against it.

Mrs Oostergard simply says:

If the labels do not show what the ingredients are and my nephew was to eat peanuts or egg, he will die.

Mr Davidson sent a stack of signatures and a note to say:

I work with 70 people and they are concerned at these proposed changes.

Ms Mitchell asks the government:

What I don't understand is why the Howard government is proposing these changes and why hasn't this been made public.

Ms Thorne says:

In the supermarkets many products have deliberately been labelled with an Australian sounding name when they are produced overseas.

The trickery behind low fat and lite are well known. These and other marketing strategies I have believed immoral if not illegal. We have needed for a long time stricter laws to enforce the needs of the population.

I believe that if companies want to sell food products they have a responsibility to inform the public: where it was grown, processed, the exact contents and where the holding company is based. On past history this will only come about through legislation.

I have another letter which was received from Ms Monkman. She says:

My primary concern regarding food labelling is genetically engineered foods—GE foods—closely followed by allergies—as stated in your letter. Australians must be free to choose whether or not they wish to consume GE foods.

In Europe and the USA there has been a major outcry and many protests over GE foods entering the food chain. As a result, many foods must be labelled as GE foods. The fact that there is such a prevalence of GE foods on the market overseas, yet not widespread support for them, opens an avenue for Australia to export GE free foods.

Almost all the letters I have received from people have asked for more information to be provided to them about this issue. The lack of community consultation over this issue needs to be corrected. To this end, I have organised a public meeting in my electorate to help raise awareness of this issue and to give the people the opportunity to discuss it and ask questions. Lindsay Tanner, the shadow minister for consumer affairs, whose interest and concern about this issue is appreciated, will be there, and a leading authority on these matters, Dick Copeman, will attend to answer many of the questions put forward from the community. This meeting will also serve as a rallying point for all the people committed to changing the government's course on these matters. We want to send a message to the government that they must reverse their decision on food labelling deregulation.

The government must abandon these new, weaker food laws and instead work towards greater protection. The government must investigate the current food laws and find ways to strengthen them. This message has come through from the community loud and clear. The government must keep public health and safety as the number one objective of all food laws. The responsibility for protecting the health of the community also must remain within the health department. The whole community must be given the opportunity to debate any proposed changes to food labelling laws and what is contained in our food products.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Is the motion seconded?

Mr Wilkie —I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.