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Tuesday, 19 November 2002
Page: 6725

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (2:59 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Health and Ageing and it continues on from my question yesterday about pharma-foods. Given there are several biopharmaceutical companies in Australia— including the federally funded CRC for bioproducts—that are actually conducting research on pharma-foods, can the minister tell us if the government has any protocols or measures in place in relation to biopharmaceutical research and the potential application, sale and use of those technologies and techniques? Specifically, can the minister assure us as to what the government is doing to make sure that the technologies and techniques are not used for illicit purposes, such as the production, sale and consumption of illicit drugs or drugs that would otherwise require a prescription? Also, can we find out what the government is doing to ensure that the technologies that are being developed are not used by organisations for terrorism purposes?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Health and Ageing) —I thank Senator Stott Despoja for her question. Part of the question that she asked relates to part of the question that she asked yesterday. It is a very detailed question to ask me whether it is being used for bioterrorism. I know that there was an article, and I went back and read the article that was in the paper over the weekend. I know that Senator Stott Despoja is obviously concerned about it. We have processes for food standards in order to ensure that any genetically modified foods have all met the Food Standards Australia New Zealand stringent data assessment requirements. The ministerial council has given final approval for 19 of these genetically modified foods. As I said in the chamber yesterday, Trish Worth is responsible in detail for this area. Because I do not see all the applications, I am not sure whether an application has been made for food that has medication in it. I am not even sure that they have got to that point yet. But I know that people are saying, `Can they put antibiotics in bananas and, if you put them in bananas, how do you determine whether people eat a whole banana or half a banana?' I think that that is the sort of stuff that Senator Stott Despoja is talking about.

Senator Vanstone —Or how big the banana is.

Senator PATTERSON —Or how big the banana is, as Senator Vanstone says. I am not a biologist. The other day I said that I wish that I was a medical ethicist. I wish that I had done law, despite what the people say on the other side. I am not sure whether it is considered to be genetically modified food when something like an antibiotic is put into a food. I do not know whether any applications have been made. I will check that. I will get you a full answer to this very detailed question. I know that Senator Stott Despoja is very interested in it, but I am sure that, given the attention that Food Standards Australia New Zealand gives to this and the concern that the ministerial council, especially the health and agricultural ministers, have—we have met and discussed some of these issues on this area—I am sure that those things would have been considered. However, I will give the senator a detailed answer and table it here in the chamber for those people who have a particular interest in it. But it seemed to me that the article in the paper was a little ahead of what is actually happening. It was predicting what might potentially be possible in the future, with regard to antibiotics in food, for example.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for the offer, again, to take it on notice. I ask when the minister believes that she will have that information available for the Senate, and if she can include information as to what exact research is taking place in relation to biopharmaceuticals in Australia, particularly in relation to those that are receiving federal funds through the CRC. Can the minister also undertake to advise the Senate when protocols and measures will be in place, as well as her analysis as to whether the Gene Technology Act and the former ANZFA regulations are appropriate? I think that the minister should have at least known by today what applications were available. I look forward to hearing from the minister.

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Health and Ageing) —With due respect to Senator Stott Despoja, I have a lot more to do than delve around trying to immediately find the exact answer for Senator Stott Despoja.

Senator Stott Despoja —That is why you have a department.

Senator PATTERSON —I will attempt to get her an answer as quickly as possible, but I want it to be as full as possible. I will table that answer as soon as I have it, but the department is obviously very busy. I will table the answer as soon as possible. But I have to tell you that I do not think that it is going to be a major issue for tomorrow, Senator Stott Despoja. It is an issue that we should be looking at. It is an issue of concern, and I accept Senator Stott Despoja's concern. But, in order to give her a full answer, I think that I need a reasonable time, because it is a very detailed question. It involves the gene technology regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand and the act. I will get as full an answer as possible as soon as I possibly can, in a reasonable time, given the detail that she requires.

Senator Hill —Mr President, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.