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Tuesday, 11 October 1983
Page: 1572

Mr BRUMBY(8.10) —In addressing the estimates for the Department of Primary Industry I wish to concentrate my remarks on the estimates provided for the Australian Bureau of Animal Health and particularly the responsibilities and work of that department in relation to food standards and pesticides. Page 46 of the 1981-82 annual report of the Department of Primary Industry states:

The Bureau continued to function as a central authority for stimulation and co- ordination of Australian activities associated with agricultural chemicals. It provided secretariats for Commonwealth/State committees established in the agricultural chemicals area by the Australian Agricultural Council. Through this pathway it not only served an on-going role in the co-ordination of regulatory control of agricultural chemicals and veterinary drugs but also developed and helped to implement Australian policy concerning the availability and use of these chemical tools.

That report goes on to describe further work of that department. Honourable members would be aware of last week's Melbourne Age article headed 'Urgent Review of Chemical' and the subsequent statement by the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin) concerning the agricultural chemical ethylene dibromide recently banned in the United States of America and New South Wales. The chemical is used for, among other purposes, ripening bananas in Queensland and treating insect pests in cereals, pineapples, sugar cane and tobacco. Ethylene dibromide has been listed by the World Health Organisation as being associated with, or strongly suspected of being associated with, causing cancer in humans. The issue raised in the Age of last week certainly touches on the delicate balance between, on the one hand, the use of pesticides which are aimed at maximising producer returns and product quality and, on the other hand, the legitimate right of consumers to agricultural food-stuffs free of chemical residue. In a technical sense pesticide residue should occur only when the pesticide has been overused or the withholding period, being the time between the application of the pesticide and the harvesting of the crop, has not been observed.

The National Health and Medical Research Council, with which the Bureau of Animal Health liaises and co-operates, has undertaken regular surveys of a market basket of typical Australian foods since 1970. The surveys include fruit and vegetables as well as processed foods and all are tested for residues such as dieldrin, DDT, lindane, and heavy metals such as lead and cadmium. The 50 or so foods tested by the National Health and Medical Research Council are those which are most frequently consumed by Australians and also those which experience has shown are likely to be contaminated. The latest market basket survey published by that Council is for samples tested in 1980. No results are yet available for 1981 or 1982 and I believe that is a matter of considerable concern to all honourable members.

The 1980 survey showed organochlorine residues above the limits of detection set by the Council in a variety of foods including onions, beans and strawberries. Organochlorines are, of course, toxic and many of them break down into even more toxic compounds such as polychlorinated biphenyls. The best known example of an organochlorine is DDT. Because of the delay in publishing the results of the 1981 and 1982 Medical Research Council surveys the Australian Consumers Association this year tested some 13 different fruits and vegetables for organochlorine and organophosphate residues. The results of that testing were published in the August 1983 edition of Choice. Significantly, the Australian Consumers Association testing detected three batches of vegetables which exceeded the Medical Research Council limits. Two of the batches contained potatoes and the other celery. In the potatoes, excess levels of the heavy metal mercury were detected-0.1 milligrams per kilogram in one sample and 0.07 milligrams per kilogram in the other. Of course, mercury is an accumulative poison that affects the kidneys and the nervous system. In the celery an amount of 0.1 milligrams per kilogram of the organophosphate fenamithos was detected, which is double the limit set by the NHMRC.

A number of different explanations are possible in terms of the excessive mercury residue in the potatoes. The mercury may be due to naturally occurring mercury in the soil; it may be due to farmers' current use of a pesticide containing inorganic mercury which was banned some time ago, or it may be due to the legally permitted dipping of potatoes by farmers in compounds containing organic mercury. Whatever the reason, and certainly the overuse of pesticides seems the more plausible, the situation is clearly unsatisfactory and ought to be addressed by government as a matter of urgency and concern.

Fenamithos, the pesticide detected at twice the allowable level in the celery, is manufactured by Bayer Australia Ltd and sold under the trade name 'Nemacur'. It is applied to the soil before planting. The Choice results plainly indicate that certain producers have not been observing sound agricultural practice and have been topping up the pesticide during the life of the crop. While the level of residue detected in the celery is unlikely-I stress unlikely-to cause ill effects to consumers, there is no question that the level is an unhealthy one as it is derived from a family of chemicals which is easily absorbed through the skin and is toxic if inhaled, absorbed or swallowed.

The use of ethylene dibromide, the lack of comprehensive and up-to-date testing by the National Health and Medical Research Council, the 1980 survey results of that Council and the recent Choice survey highlight the need for both the Federal and State governments to monitor much more closely the use of pesticides on our agricultural products. It is pertinent in this debate to refer also to the findings of the second report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation on its inquiry into hazardous chemicals. That report was tabled in December 1982. Amongst other matters, the Committee examined the assessment and subsequent control machinery for chemicals in Australia. It noted that there are a number of deficiencies in these arrangements and reported:

. . . that the overall control of hazardous chemicals in Australia is poor, particularly when compared with other developed countries . . .

The Committee does not believe that the fragmentation between States and Commonwealth jurisdictions and the resultant lack of uniformity are acceptable.

In the Committee's specific reference to agricultural chemicals it noted at page 29:

Assurances were given on the safety of agricultural chemicals by the Department of Primary Industry that: 'if the product is used with reasonable commonsense and in compliance with the directions on the label the hazard will be absolutely minimal'.

The report continued:

These assurances may be relevant to recently registered chemicals but in the absence of defined programs to ensure the assessment of chemicals not previously assessed, these assurances are quite misleading.

It should also be emphasised that the existing legislative requirements through which potentially hazardous chemicals are managed in Australia are numerous and fragmented. Commonwealth law is implemented through at least seven different Acts and States and Territories legislation through at least 16 different Acts.

I put to honourable members that the existing agricultural and veterinary chemical situation provides a strong case for developing national legislation and administrative mechanisms as a matter of some urgency. Consumers of agricultural produce in particular deserve far more than the limited surveys presently undertaken at Federal level. They deserve regular testing of food produce and far stricter controls on the registration and use of hazardous chemicals. In particular consumers deserve uniform Federal legislation with a chemical clearance system that should be statutory and include consumer and environmental representation. I know that the Australian Consumers Association has recommended that perhaps the responsibility for this legislation be taken from the Department of Primary Industry and handed over to the Department of Home Affairs and Environment or the Department of Health which it may be said have less of a vested interest in the control and use of those chemicals.

Finally, I welcome the Budget decision of the Government to allocate $0.3m from the Department of Health estimates for the establishment of a chemical hazards assessment unit. That certainly is a very long overdue and welcome initiative. It shows that our Government is committed to make progress in this area. But I hope that my remarks tonight on this important matter indicate that there is still even more progress to be made.