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Thursday, 11 March 1999
Page: 2756

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —My question is directed to the Minister representing the Minister for Health and Aged Care. Is the minister aware that the first Australian consumer conference on genetic technology is taking place in Canberra at the moment? In light of this, can the minister confirm that the Australia New Zealand Food Authority has found that there are no public health and safety concerns from Round-up ready soya beans and INGARD cotton seed, despite recent reports of increased pesticide residues on possible crops such as Round-up ready soya beans which have actually embarrassed our beef export industry? Can the minister confirm that increased use of herbicides on genetically modified soya beans can result in them containing up to 200 times the legal residue of Round-up herbicide?

Senator HERRON (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs) —I thank Senator Stott Despoja for the question. Yes, I am aware of the conference that is being held in Canberra. Genetically engineered foods are quite a recent development that are on the market, as you know. There has been considerable question within government and within the media about food safety and the use of pesticides on cotton and on food products. There have been proposed food safety reforms to cover all stages of the food chain and these food safety reforms developed by ANZFA, with extensive input from states, territories, local government, the food industry itself and community groups, will apply to all food businesses across the food industry from farm through to retail sale. The food safety reforms include infrastructure initiatives to ensure compliance with enforcement of the new standards so that it is undertaken in a nationally consistent manner.

I would assure Senator Stott Despoja that the government is of course cognisant of the safety of all Australians and that we will do everything in our power to ensure that the highest possible standards are maintained so that these proposed standards place a clear obligation on each food business to develop a food safety program to prevent food from becoming unsafe. The extent of the food safety program will depend on the nature of the business so that low risk food businesses will have to do very little to meet these requirements. Overall, our responsibility is to protect consumers against any possible changes in the food production chain, including genetically engineered food, so that there is no risk to the community at large.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his response and his concern. I take it from his answer that he supports the idea of mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods. Is the minister aware of a comment by the managing director of ANZFA recently, who stated that `mandatory universal labelling of genetically modified foods is virtually impossible to achieve'? What is the response of the government to that statement? Does this appear to government to be an apparent undermining of the council's commitment to mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods, given that Senator Tambling, the parliamentary secretary, serves as chair of that ANZFA council? Does that not seem to be directly contrary to the work of the council and does that not seem to be undermining the push for genetically modified food to be universally and mandatorily labelled?

Senator HERRON (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs) —Senator Bolkus will be pleased to know that this is no test. I think I can answer that quite satisfactorily to Senator Stott Despoja's satisfaction. Standard A18 foods produced using gene technology will come into effect on 13 May this year and will require the labelling of genetically modified foods that are substantially different from their traditional food counterparts.

Senator Bolkus —That's not the question.

Senator HERRON —I am sure that even Senator Bolkus might be able to understand that. There is nothing to prevent any food retailer in response to market demands from requiring that the products it sells are labelled to show the presence of genetically modified components providing this information is accurate and not misleading. It is anticipated that ANZFA will make a recommendation to ministers in April this year. As Senator Stott Despoja would know, in addition, at their 17 December 1998 meeting state and territory health ministers in their capacity as the Australia New Zealand Foods Standards Council asked ANZFA to develop a draft amendment for standard A18 to require labelling for all genetically modified foods. (Time expired)